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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