Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sonic Champagne from Berliner Philharmoniker on New Year's Eve

Pop! The cork flew from the bottle with the opening phrase of the Dvořák Symphonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 no. 8. This concert of The Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle and transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, seemed like a gift. It was not announced when the season was originally posted, but appeared a few weeks ago on their listing of scheduled live events.

The concert was titled Das Silvesterkonzert, and it had a formal but yet relaxed feel. The audience was even highlighted in soft bluish light. Annette Gerlach moderated the concert, saying a few words before each segment of music.

The event gave us a chance to hear pianist Lang Lang perform the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Rattle and the BP. This work is one of the two concerti on the disc recently released by the orchestra with Lang as soloist. Surrounded as it was by energized dance music, Lang had the perfect opportunity to bring out the playful edges of the Prokofiev third.

His technical machinery is remarkable. But what pleased most in this performance was his extremely quiet and tender sound in places like the nocturnal fourth variation of the second movement. The dotted rhythm octave-calls followed by whisper quiet figuration was haunting. Lang made the piano seem orchestral in its own right, but he also listened carefully to the orchestra, matching articulations and shadings throughout.

There is a passage in the lyrical central tableau of the third movement where many live performances lose fizzle. It begins with the passage for solo piano in D minor. But Lang played with the precision of a clock escapement, and kept the energy of the work leaning forward.

The live filming of this concert was also quite musical. Several angles showed close-up shots of Lang's fingerings, and the crisp energy of his articulations. There was a very clean shot of castinet playing in the first movement, and a very good balance between soloist and orchestra, which was useful in this concerto where the orchestra had such an important role in the narrative.

There was no intermission, but it nevertheless took several minutes for the mechanical lifts to swallow the piano into the stomach of the hall and to restore the stage for the remainder of the event.

A set of three more Dvořák Slavonic dances followed, this time from Op. 72. The orchestra performed No. 1, the Odzemek in B major, the slow and elegant No. 2 in E minor, and closed with No. 7 in C major. One always listens for the gear changes in this style. It is informative to hear how good orchestras anticipate and shape them. We got to see Rattle enjoy the two six-bar phrases in the middle of the C major trio in No. 2. His smile was all that was needed to communicate the lovely strangeness of these two phrases awash in a sea of longing set in four-bar phrases.

I'm not sure that the third movement of the Hindemith Symphonic Dances fit into this program, but it is rarely heard and was enjoyable for that reason alone.

A Khachaturian set followed with four movements from the Gayane suite, including the Sabre Dance, Dance of the Young Kurds, the adagio Gayane used by Kubrick, and closing with the wonderfully rustic Lezginka.

As an encore, Rattle played two works by Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F, and closed with the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.

Goodbye 2013, you have been (mostly) good to us. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kaufmann and Harteros Impress on Bayerische Staatsoper.tv

 Tézier and Kaufmann at the end of Act III

Thanks to Bayerische Staatsoper.tv for an HD broadcast of La Forza del Destino from Munich that was part of their second season of live streams.

This performance was centered on Jonas Kaufmann who impressed in the challenging role of Alvaro, but also in a memorable effort by German soprano Anja Harteros (known to Met-goers from her 2003 Countess in Figaro, Donna Anna in 2004, and Violetta in 2008). Ludovic Tézier (Enrico in the Met's 2011 Live-in-HD Lucia) also excelled in the often overlooked role of Carlo.

The modernized staging seemed promising at first. A family prayed around a table, and as the overture moved through its sonic tableaux the actions onstage darkened and developed. Throughout the first act the drama intensified, and the infamous drop of the gun that led to the accidental death of the Marchese was done effectively, without appearing as operatic parody.

The first scene of the second act took place around the same table near which the Marchese was shot, and his body remained in place on the floor. The music was like a nightmare hallucination.

But things took a turn in the second scene of Act II, which was too brightly lit. The Verdi style at the time of La Forza experimented with ways of injecting humor into otherwise serious operas. The humor in this production was too often set as sarcasm. For example, Melitone was never funny. The scene felt long, and the music, as evidenced in passages like the rising sequences after the violin solo in B minor during the finale, lacked the edge that Met fans have come to expect from the Levine sound. The Escher-like set of Act III was distracting.

But accompaniments improved after intermission, with strong support in Act III (though there were several cuts that were distracting) and stunning sound throughout the second scene of Act IV.

Vitalij Kowaljow was double cast as both the Marchese and Padre Guardiano. This was effective because the shock of seeing him in Act II scene 2 (after his "first character" had been shot) added to the ghostly nightmare impact, but it also put him onstage during the close of the opera, where his double role helped tie together both the guilt of murder (as a ghost of the dead father) and the hope of redemption (as the padre).

Things came together in the final scene. A stage filled with leaning white crosses made a visually striking impact, and Kaufmann and Harteros lit it large.
The camera work was effective and one could opt to watch this transmission with English subtitles. It was an amazing gift to see this broadcast for free. The rest of the season includes six more live transmissions. I will be tuning in to each of them, and am already looking forward to Clemenza in February and especially to Die Soldaten in May!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

December in Good Cheer; A Family Concert in The Digital Concert Hall

In December we are drawn inward as daylight hours decrease and cold weather challenges us. It is hard to believe, looking out at our favorite trees and our sleeping gardens, that they could ever return to those rich colors we remember.
Inward is good. But to balance, we often feel need to celebrate in various ways during this season, to have some chuckles and to be entertained.

Two good opportunities:

The Strings and Percussionists of The Berliner Philharmoniker will present a Family Concert called "Stringle Bells" in the Digital Concert Hall (4pm Berlin time, which is 10am on the East Coast of the US). This event, hosted by presenter Sarah Willis, is sure to please.

After the concert you may be in the mood for a snack. There is no better musical snack than the show Prelude & Food, also hosted by Willis, which I have written about here. The series combines cooking with musical conversation, impromptu performances and cheer, and has just released a new episode featuring conductor Donald Runnicles.

More thoughts on the wonders of December from this blog featuring music by Tchaikovsky and observations by the English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Chailly conducts Berliner Philharmoniker in a concert of the Unbeschreibliche

Riccardo Chailly
"Das Unbeschreibliche," sang Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff, "hier ist es getan." [The indescribable, here is accomplished]. These famous words are from the "chorus mysticus" that closes the second part of Goethe's Faust. But Franz Liszt was also a master of the Unbeschreibliche, and his Faust Symphony, in which these words appear, was an early essay in personality psychology.

Guest conductor Riccardo Chailly led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a concert transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall that centered on the Faust Symphony, but opened with Wagner's Faust Overture.

Both of these works aspire to share the personality and attitude of characters from the play but not to unfold imaginary scenes. They are psychological. Where they differ was in approach.

Wagner cast his "solitary Faust" in very clear sonata form with themes derived from a murky introduction. Chailly leaned into the strong cadences that marked the close of each section and heightened the collision that happened when the second theme group emerged suddenly from its punctuated cadence, without transition, in the recapitulation. He cast a look of surprise to set the mood of the woodwind fanfare that centered the development, and took time as this wonderful music later disintegrated. The orchestra played brilliantly articulate figures throughout the overture with lively physicality and crunchy dotted rhythms.

Commentators have long argued details of the form in the first movement of Liszt's Faust Symphony. But what is most important is that its music represents both restless and heroic intentions.

There were significant meditations given in bassoon soliloquies. The camera angles of the production clarified these moments, and helped us focus on hearing the Allegro impetuoso as a parallelism that makes it a third paragraph of the introduction. These reflective moments marked most important closings in the movement.

When the Allegro agitato returned in C# minor, a half-step higher than in the exposition, it represents a higher-level confusion in the central character it represents. Chailly got an almost panicked sound from the orchestra, and when the music froze on an A-flat, the return of the augmented chords from the introduction felt as if we had moved back in time. It didn't matter where the development actually started. It was music for a character who had become unstuck from time.

The gentle but surprisingly agile gestures that opened the second movement were played like intimate chamber music in the wind section. Most impressive were connections made in the central panel of this movement to the corresponding themes as played in the first movement. The structure could not have been made more transparent.

Liszt did not give Mephistopheles a unique personality. Instead the devil is expressed as a distortion and parody of music associated with Faust. This music only works if it is played with more humor than sarcasm. Again the music suddenly froze on an A-flat. In Liszt's view of Mephistopheles, even the devil could not mess with Gretchen, and her theme was presented in D-flat major with a wonderful horn solo accompanied by harp.

And it was this key, D-flat major, in which the tenor Nikolai Schukoff addressed us. He was able to float the high lyric lines of this passage with a warm sound and very convincing musicality.

This was a program of careful listening. It was filled with detail, ideas, and great energy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sarah Willis to Interview Helseth and Neunecker

Tine Thing Helseth is a young trumpet soloist with an identifiable sound. A celebratory lyrical tone is quickly established during the Ibert impromptu on her most recent EMI disc, and her selection of repertoire builds like a novel that culminates in the Hindemith sonata. She is also articulate. She should be the perfect interview for Sarah Willis, and will take part in a live horn hang out on November 22nd at 2pm Berlin time (which is 8am here on the East Coast).

On November 25th at 2pm Berlin Time, Willis interviews hornplayer Marie Luise Neunecker. Neunecker is well known as the person to whom Ligeti dedicated the Hamburg Concerto. My favorite disc of her playing is the "Russian Horn Concertos" CD on Koch.

I am looking forward to these interviews and will tune into both of them. If you have not yet visited a horn hangout, please join the growing audience. The topics are frequently of interest to those of us who are outside the horn community, and you will be hard pressed to find a friendlier group of folks.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Doves, Ghosts, Defiance and Longing; Gurre-lieder Succeeds in Berlin

"Weit flog ich," sang mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as the wood dove. "Klage sucht' ich, fand gar viel! (Far did I fly, and seeking grief have found much!)" This refrain from the close of Part I of Arnold Schoenberg's massive Gurre-lieder remained in the ear, in an impressive performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker that was transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall.

Simon Rattle, whose 2002 recording of this work is already a classic, led a detailed accounting of this elemental early work by Schoenberg that will become a jewel in concert archive associated with the digital concert hall.

Rattle was assisted by a solid collection of vocalists led by the American tenor Stephen Gould as Waldemar, who navigated the extremes within this part but also lingered over pleasing colors and shades. He worked well with soprano Soile Isokoski as Tove, and even though the two never sang at the same time there seemed to be a believable connection between them.

The complexities within this orchestral score are legendary. The presentation given by the cameras favored the vocalists, but often provided important angles that helped clarify unusual orchestral textures. The one place we could have used a better look was during that evocative high B written for piccolo in the "Sommerwindes wilde Jagd." Schoenberg wanted that sound to be pianissimo and it almost never can be. The sound in this performance was fabulous! It seemed like a specially constructed whistle of some sort, and it held interest throughout the passage and somehow blended with each of the other instruments that spoke during that scene.

This is a work that begins in the haze of late romanticism, but transitions within itself to end leaning into modernism. This performance made the shifting styles sensible. "Herr Gänsefuß, Frau Gänsekraut" was a significant moment in this transition. The great Thomas Quasthoff was engaging in this melodramatic role. He articulated its rhythms with clarity and found an engaging middle ground between singing and speaking. Several times he created thrilling moments in sustained voice.

If you missed the live transmission, make sure you see the sunrise music. The orchestra has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the concert hall, and here is an opportunity to see how well the hall holds and focuses massive forces. But beyond that, it was a celebration of the process by which a concert of music this rare and delicious can be shared, live, to a global audience.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Two Kisses and a Shake; a review of Eugene Onegin from Met Live in HD

Scene from Act III

Unexpectedly the music stopped. We were only nine measures from the final curtain of the performance. But the music stopped. Anna Netrebko, who was Tatiana, had started to leave the stage. But like the music, she also stopped. She returned, moving quickly toward Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin. She planted an extended, passionate kiss with a sexual energy rarely expressed in operatic kisses.

Let’s just say it was a most memorable inverted augmented sixth.

Kwiecien sang a C major triad unaccompanied and the music resolved into E minor as the curtain fell. The chord was not the only thing that was inverted. The kiss itself was an inversion of a kiss that Onegin gave, just as unexpectedly, to Tatiana in Act I scene 3 (which is often called the “sermon” scene).

This new production by Deborah Warner and directed by Fiona Shaw gathered momentum as it progressed.

It was described as “among the roster of also-rans,” and also as “drab,” and “dingy” by Tommasini on opening night. The set did not seem that way in HD. But nonetheless, I had a hard time connecting with the first scene.

Secondary roles and seemingly insignificant moments take on a primary importance in scene, and the secondary vocal roles were bland at best. Elena Zaremba wobbled too much in pitch as Madame Larina, and Oksana Volkova made little impression as Olga. The “Chorus and Dance of the Peasants” was contrived and acrobatic and it distracted from the rustic attraction that this music can generate.

I was pleasantly surprised by Netrebko. She turned all of her energy inward, and her Tatiana seemed preoccupied by art and by the world of the imagination and not simply shy. The letter scene became an externalization of this quality and did not seem like a contradiction in personality.

The HD camera work was effective, but did delay in going to “wide-shot” at the Onegin’s exit in Act I scene III, and we missed the infamous “apple bite” that has become the subject of commentary from Margaret Juntwait on recent Sirius FM Met broadcasts. Apparently, the attitude with which he took a bite from an apple in making his exit

Piotr Beczala's Lenski also took some time to make its mark. His character never seemed believable as a poet, but his singing was always of interest. In his Act II scene 2 aria everything came together. (The forest set was evocative-- and we watched the fallen tree get assembled during the scene break). Like Tatiana, Lenski's energy was also inward, and the similarity in these two characters was articulated very directly.

Onegin and Lenski shook hands in this production before the duel began. It was a gesture that was given a close up on the HD cameras. The shake was a symbol of friendship gone wrong.

While it took longer to gather its forces than the 1997 Carsen production, this new production did have insights and was very worth hearing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rattle and Berliner Philharmoniker; Concert in Answer to a Finch

In the second song of the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the merry finch calls out to the singer; "Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?" Simon Rattle returned to the digital concert hall conducting a program with the Berliner Philharmoniker that was a significant effort and came across with thrilling energy. Each work on the program gave its own distinct answer to that Finch.

The program began with the Symphony No. 2 by Witold Lutosławski. Too often orchestras go into auto-pilot when they play works that require ad libitum playing. The Berliner Philharmoniker brought out beautiful detail in the succession of textures that comprise this work.

The first movement, marked "Hésitant," is built from a succession of episodes and refrains. Each refrain is scored for a trio of double reeds, and the succession if intervallic profiles in these sections was as audible and organized as the sequence of timbral colors in its schematic form. Rattle gave a quick and powerful cue for the fifth episode, which set the proper attitude for this passage scored for piano harp and celesta. These details helped shape the flow of the work.

There is a central moment close to the end of the second movement when the conductor is asked, for the first time in the symphony, to beat time in the traditional manner. The cameras missed the opportunity to showcase this moment during the five-and-a-half measures of string playing that marks the onset of this new motion, but caught the motion in its second occurrence. Rattle and the orchestra made the pulsing impact of this coordinated music feel devastating. It sounded like all possible dances happening at once.

Baritone Christian Gerhaher joined the orchestra as soloist in Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen." The sound of this work after Lutosławski was a bittersweet re-entry into the world of the 19th century. Gerhaher sang the work with highly personal, direct and heart breaking expression. the music glowed from the heat generated earlier on the program, and seemed an unspoken undercurrent of the symphony.

After intermission, soloists Luba Orgonášová, Mihoko Fujimura, and Stuart Skelton, joined Gerhaher who returned to sing the bass solo, the wonderful Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, and organist Christian Schmitt, joined the orchestra for the Glagolitic Mass by Janáček.

Still thinking about the opening of the Lutosławski symphony, I was awaiting the connection to it made by the trumpet music that starts the Úvod. I am aware of the research that places an Intrada derived from the Exodus before the Úvod in order to create a symmetrical structure. The Intrada does not connect in the way I had hoped.

Still, the sense of symmetry within the Mass that it created was convincing, especially in the extended symphonic interlude in the Credo movement. The interaction of the clarinet trio with the cello/viola line was memorable. The extensive brass and timpani writing were played with groove. It was a celebration in bright pastels. 

Shilkloper and Wallendorf open a new season of Horn Hangouts

 This month marks the one-year anniversary of Horn Hangouts!

Sarah Willis has succeeded in making these live chats a forum and educational opportunity for the horn community, but also a welcoming and engaging place for musicians and music lovers with broader  interests.

Sarah's website lists 21 musicians who are scheduled for this season,  with an amazing roster of brass players, but also including many other musicians, like esteemed baritone Thomas Hampson, and conductors Daniel Harding and Paavo Järvi.

On Monday the new season opens by "hanging out" with Arkady Shilkloper. The event begins at 3pm EST (9pm Berlin, and 5am on the 10th for the dedicated Australian following this series has won).

Shilkloper has a pioneer spirit. You are only a few searches away from hearing him improvise with jazzers, or play alphorn for an amazed gathering in Australia. In this clip from Russian television called "Duet for One," he hums a theme while playing fast figural variations at the same time.

On Tuesday, Sarah will interview her colleague Klaus Wallendorf. Wallendorf is articulate and witty. He has a unique and lively personality, and is also a brilliant musician and gifted composer and arranger. It is almost unfair. Here is a very representative clip of Sarah and him:


I have never tried chess without dice but wonder if it is anything like craps without rooks.

Don't miss Wallendorf. The interview will be 9am EST (3pm Berlin, and 11pm in Australia).

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pittsburgh in Berlin; The PSO plays in the Digital Concert Hall

Manfred Honeck and Anne-Sophie Mutter
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra began its European Festivals Tour this weekend, and after performing in the Grafenegg Festival on Thursday and Friday they played the opening concert of the Musikfest Berlin 2013 earlier today, in an event transmitted free on the Digital Concert Hall.

PSO Music Director and Conductor Manfred Honeck led the orchestra in a colorful and engaging program that began with strings only. The infrequently heard "Suite for String Orchestra" by Léoš Janáček opened with a "Moderato" that balanced dramatic and delicate ideas with music that brightened and darkened with surprising rapidity. It was a challenging quality to capture at the  opening of a concert, and the connecting phrases did not always click into place.

But with the muted trio for violins and violas that comprises the second movement the orchestra found its voice. They played the third movement "Andante con moto" like a Pennsylvania Barn Dance, and took the fourth movement presto at breathtaking speed.

Honeck conducted the fifth movement adagio without baton and with the help of lovely solo cello playing, this troubled hymn became the expressive centerpiece for the work.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter joined the orchestra as soloist in "Chain II. Dialogue for violin and orchestra" by Witold Lutosławski. This work was written for her in the 1980s, and she brings out dimensions of it that younger players often miss. The work depends upon making "ad libitum" passages sound improvisational--not like notated music, then contrasting this sound with the precision and intensity of clockwork. Mutter brought out the chaotic potential of the ad libitum music, and the lyrical side of the notated music. In the third movement there was a wonderful moment after the drums, and just before the piano entered, where the orchestral strings played a fabulous dialog with her. This kind of careful listening is all too often missing from this style of music.

After intermission the orchestra played Ein Heldenleben. Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley played the famous violin solo with wit and precision, and the horn solo and dialog with the concertmaster that closed the work was unusually tender and dolce.

There were two encores. The first was Max Reger's transcription of "Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen 'Am Tage Aller Seelen,'" D343 by Schubert, and this was followed by the last waltz from the Rosenkavalier suite.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Rattle Conducts Mozart in the Digital Concert Hall

It is common in orchestral concerts to hear one of the last three symphonies that Mozart wrote. It is less common to hear all three on the same program. Simon Rattle inaugurated a new season of live concerts by the Berliner Philharmoniker transmitted in the Digital Concert Hall with a program of these last three symphonies, written within a span of six weeks in the summer of 1788.

When hearing the symphonies in succession the differences in orchestration and in the particular color of sound in which each of them is cast seems worlds apart. The timpani sound in the E-flat major symphony that opened the event was played with a hard mallet that brought a military drum feel to its presence.

Rattle conducted on the floor of the stage, without a podium, without baton, and without scores. When he concluded the first symphony, he barely left the stage for applause before he returned to begin the great G minor.

We don’t normally hear the absence of sound, but because of the close juxtaposition of these symphonies, and the unusual color they had in the E-flat symphony, we were especially aware of the absence of timpani in the G minor symphony. The addition of oboes (which were not present in the symphony No. 39) made an impression and led to differing insights during the symphony No. 40.

Rattle seemed to extend the sudden silences that appear within the first two movements of Symphony No. 39 and he darkened its melancholy passages. This made the G minor symphony seem to develop ideas that were already hinted, or suggested, in earlier passages.

After intermission, the “Jupiter” symphony connected back by its use of timpani, and completed the amplification of double reed sound with the absence of clarinets. Mozart thought of sonic transformations like these in his operas, perhaps these connections were not simply chance.

It is a “new year” for the Berliner Philharmoniker, and those of us who teach are thinking about new students, new classes and new opportunities. What better way to celebrate the “new year” than with a concert of the last three Mozart symphonies in the digital concert hall?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Refreshing Rigoletto in Clinton

Alok Kumar, Amanda Hall, and Galen Scott Bower
Clinton, August 6—It was soooo refreshing, after an over-hyped Met production based in Vegas, to hear Rigoletto set in Mantua. Verdi’s opera was given a compelling performance by the Opera Theater of Connecticut, now in its 28th season, in the intimate setting of the Andrews Memorial Theater.

Production Director Alan Mann often subtly shifted our expectation to alter the web of connections. For example, when the Duke declared to Gilda that “Love is the sunshine and spark of creation,” in the second act he did so by singing these words from Gilda’s diary, making the tune an articulation of her thoughts instead of his. This was a performance that systematically gathered intensities to culminate in an effective quartet and a thrilling trio that launched us toward the riveting ending.

This opera has several significant secondary and small roles, but seldom are any as memorable as the performances given by Nicholas Masters as Sparafucile and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein as Maddalena.

Masters channeled grim-reaper energy when he entered in the second scene of Act I and was able to bring out the complex shades of this professional killer in the third act. Sparafucile will kill anyone for the right price, but don’t call him a thief. Masters was aggressive enough to be believable but also thoughtful enough to be particular about his character’s role in life.

Feinstein entered with a fresh voice in the third act and immediately drew attention. She sings with charisma and her deep, rich voice never got lost in ensembles.

The chorus was also excellent and contributed clean diction that made their Italian understandable without supertitles. They also produced a wonderfully spooky sound during their off-stage singing in the final act.

Among the principals, baritone Galen Scott Bower was impressive as Rigoletto. He shaped the brooding, bitter, icy qualities of this role, but his love for his daughter Gilda was believable.

Tenor Alok Kumar slightly ornamented his line “di che il fato ne infiora la vita (they make my life so exciting)” from “questo o quella” and this kind of enthusiastic detail gave the character an air of confidence that made his seductive art believable. Several times during the evening his powerful and effortless high register blew us away.

Soprano Amanda Hall sang Gilda with beautiful colors and many enchanting technical ideas. Her “Caro nome” was elegant and filled with graceful connected lines. But there was much more room for the character arc of Gilda to develop, from restless naivety to nobly conceived suicide, than happened in this particular performance.

The orchestra was too loud during much of the first scene and sometimes covered the singers. This allowed us to discover the voices later than would typically be the case in this opera, but many of the subtleties of that wonderful scene were lost. After this first scene, everything worked.

This production was an opportunity, increasingly rare, to hear this opera in our own backyard. It was a chance to discover how impressive this opera is in a cozy hall among friends.

Performances of this production will continue on Thursday, August 8, and Saturday, August 10 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, August 11 at 6 pm at the Andrews Memorial Theater, 54 East Main Street, Clinton.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Review of “Portraits” by Andreas Ottensamer

Andreas Ottensamer is a clarinetist with a distinctive sound. His lines have a strongly vocal inflection, and a controlled sense of lyrical articulation with an unforgettable ease in legato is characteristic of his playing. His new recording, “Portraits; The Clarinet Album,” released on Mercury Classics label in partnership with Deutsche Grammophon is a showcase for his sound.

The disc opens with a charismatic performance of the first Gershwin Prelude arranged for clarinet and orchestra. Ottensamer speaks American music without an accent. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra also contribute to the wit and humor of this sparkling beginning. The sound of the recording is big and spacious.

Moving directly to the Copland Clarinet Concerto from Gershwin makes the opening of the Copland sound too much like a second movement, thereby diminishing some of its uniqueness. But the performance of the Copland is pleasing, especially the engaging balance between melancholy tenderness and fierce expressive outbursts. Listen also for the full-bodied sound even at the quietest dynamics, as for instance in the restatement at [1:46] where the orchestra is listening and the violins enter ghostly quiet.

Three movements on this disc, including the Gershwin Prelude and “La fille aux cheveux de lin” from Debussy’s Préludes Book 1, were arranged for clarinet and orchestra by Stephan Koncz, who is a cellist and colleague of Ottensamer in the Berliner Philharmoniker. These arrangements are musical, often imaginative, and are a welcome addition to the disc.

“La fille aux cheveux de lin” is transposed a half-step down from Gb to F (so she is not the “girl” you knew from childhood), but once you become used to the new key the color proves resonant and richly vibrant in the orchestra.

The greatest surprise on this disc is the Cimarosa Concerto for Clarinet and Strings which was “freely arranged” from keyboard works by Arthur Benjamin made in 1942. Benjamin’s fabulous transcription of this work was written for either oboe or clarinet as the solo instrument. The work is well known and often recorded as an oboe concerto, but Ottensamer makes a convincing case for hearing the work as a clarinet concerto.

One can never have enough Beach, and the arrangement of Amy Beach's “Berceuse,” the central movement of the “Three Works for Violin and Piano Op. 40 No. 2” makes for a very effective sonic sorbet as palette cleanser between concerti. The dialog between clarinet and orchestral strings in the performance is enchanting.

The disc closes with the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra No.?1 in C minor op. 26 by Louis Spohr [1784–1859]. “Several times in this concerto,” said Ottensamer in the well-written program booklet, “a long build-up in the melody is followed by a technically challenging passage with no space to breathe. There are certainly ways of taking a breath somewhere in between, but here – when it supports the musical line – circular breathing can be very useful.” Long, fluid lines that defy gravity are something of his trademark and the detail in passage work made possible by his breath support continues to amaze, even on repeated listenings.

The Spohr requires a particular musical intelligence and both conductor and soloist tracked and disentangled the contours its form in order to bring clarity. When the music first finds its way to E-flat major [2:25] there is a preface that is like a musical parenthesis; like an emcee who arrives to announce that the second theme group will begin momentarily. Most performances grab for this mirage and land like it was a matter of survival. Ottensamer and Nezet-Seguin knew that the music must first move into the colorful key of G-flat major [2:36] before finding the real second theme group [3:18]. Listen for the way they focus all parameters of the score to mark the occasion. They make it worth the wait.

I am happy to add this disc to my collection. Ottensamer is known for his work as clarinetist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and his sound is well-documented in the Digital Concert Hall.  This disc provides an opportunity to hear how his playing can sparkle in an extended narrative as soloist.

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