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.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Prelude and Fugue? No... Prelude & Food; a new show hosted by Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis with actor Christian Berkel; in episode to be released July 19
She has become a significant presence in the classical music world, and a new series featuring Sarah Willis that is called “Prelude & Food” is worthy of your attention.

Willis is a member of the horn section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the iconic orchestra that has successfully expanded its audience with a collection of high quality live concert broadcasts in the Digital Concert Hall.

Live broadcasts in the Digital Concert Hall often include specially created “interval talks” that play during intermission. These conversations almost always feature a member of the orchestra who interviews the conductor and/or soloist of the evening. The conversations range over practical topics and often give insights about the music and those who perform it.

Willis has become a popular interval host. She has a journalistic flair, and also has a distinctive kind of charisma that puts the people she interviews at ease. Ideas flow naturally.

Alexander Lück and Daniel Finkernagel from finkernagel & lück medienproduktion met Willis through their work on the broadcast team of the Digital Concert Hall. They conceived of the original concept for “Prelude & Food,” and as they worked with Willis they became convinced she would be the perfect host.

Taped in German with English subtitles, Prelude & Food is not a cooking show in the tradition of Julia Child. Instead, each episode is centered on a guest who arrives with a grocery bag of food to cook. Other friends of the guest are already assembled, and the group begins to cook a dish at various times and in various combinations.

One might not catch all the steps necessary to reconstruct the meal at your own home, but that result is not the central focus of the show. Instead, we see the process of working together; of sharing the joy of communication in a chamber music of chopping and mixing.

Camera shots cut away from discussions from time-to-time to show interactions among the friends in another part of an adjacent dining room. The camera positions move slightly during conversations to create energy and unusual angles help shape our connection and make us feel involved.

While food is simmering, baking, or boiling there are opportunities for short musical works that are like sonic hors d'oeuvres. These works can be light-hearted and fun or can be surprisingly gorgeous, but they are an important link to the awesome talents and skills that these musicians have developed to the point where even casual playing is graceful and entrancing.

The process of preparing a dish becomes the narrative around which conversations, surprise guests, and musical interludes intersect. It is a clever format for revealing the charm of creative people, and its energy is youthful and fresh.

Willis is the perfect host for this kind of semi-indeterminate network of conversations. She directs, persuades, and develops a special kind of conversational polyphony.

In the first episode the guest is singer Anna Prohaska, who has appeared in the digital concert hall twice; once as a soloist in Mahler 8 and in an engaging concert in 2011 singing Mozart and Berg.

Prohaska explains that singers must be very careful of their health and must be aware of every change in their voices, so she shows us how to make her own special version of chicken soup. Her secret is in not using too much water, so that the taste is stronger, and she puts spices into a newly fashioned tea bag so that it can hold juniper berries and other spices.

Christoph Schneider (the drummer in Rammstein) is the surprise guest for the first episode. Like several classical musicians, Prohaska has a metal side and like many rockers, Schneider seems happy to hang out with classical musicians.

The second episode of “Prelude & Food” will be available on July 25. Cellist Alban Gerhardt is the featured guest, and he will show us how to make Moussaka. Gerhardt's friends on the show are the actor Christian Berkel, and manager Boris Orlob.

Two other episodes are in the process of being edited and will appear soon.

Episode three will feature the conductor Donald Runnicles as a main guest, with mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova, and tenor Massimo Giordano. Episode four will feature oboist Albrecht Mayer  as main guest, along with pianist Markus Becker and woodwind instrument repair guru Ludwig Frank.

We have become accustomed to thinking about audience development for classical music as consisting of concerts in the Bernstein tradition given to children. But this show is audience development for people who can become immediate subscribers; for folks in their 20s and 30s who will discover that people who are devoted to classical music are people who are basically like them (and maybe even just a little bit cooler). 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Some thoughts on "July" from the Tchaikovsky "Seasons"

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876.

The editor chose the subtitles that set the mood for each month. July was inspired by the "song of the reaper." An additional epigraph was given based on a phrase from a poem by Aleksey Koltsov:

"Move the shoulders, shake the arms!
And the noon wind breathes in the face!"

Tchaikovsky wrote dance music built on a collision between formal and informal movement.

There is an elegant and restrained quality in the opening 7-bar phrases. The music is almost processional. Metric groupings shift to keep one off-balance: [3+2+2], [3+2+2]. The opening 3-patterns of both phrases are expanded by attaching a one-measure "bow" [0:04, and [0:20] to an otherwise two-bar metric pattern.

Pletnev takes a great deal of time [0:27-0:30] between sections in this live performance to create more space for transition between musical ideas. This delay eliminates collision and normalizes the music: too bad.

The music shifts suddenly into C minor [0:31] and sports a backbeat. This is music of diabolical fun with rustic figuration in the bass. Three fanfares culminate this section [0:42, 0:49, and 0:55]. Each fanfare is followed by a solistic break--the middle one in rising contour and the outer ones falling.

The return [1:06] introduces a curious triplet figuration in the tenor that becomes a parody of the formality of the opening section. There is a brief codetta [1:31] that allows the triplets to extend into ever-higher registers to create a closing for this first part of the piece.

"Now doe the Reapers try their backs and their armes," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) about July, "and the lusty Youthes pitch the sheafes into the Cart."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," shares the sense of contrasts in July that caught Tchaikovsky: "The Souldier now hath a hot march, and the Lawyer sweats in his lyned Gowne...In summe, I thus conclude of it, I hold it a profitable season, the Labourers gaine, and the rich mans wealth. Farewell."
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...