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Andreas Ottensamer: what else can we transcribe for clarinet and piano?

New York
Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall
02/08/2022 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op.102, No.1, Op.62, No.6, Op.67, No.5, Op.85, No.2, Op.85, No.4, & Op.30, No.6 (arr. Andreas Ottensamer)
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude for the Left Hand, Op.9, No.1
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonata in F Minor, Op.120, No.1
Alec Templeton: Pocket Size Sonata No.2 for Clarinet and Piano
Astor Piazzolla: Histoire du tango: “Café 1930” (arr. Dmitriy Varelas)
Frédéric Chopin: Ballade No.4 in F Minor, Op.52
George Gershwin: Three Preludes (arr. Andreas Ottensamer)

Andreas Ottensamer (Clarinet), Alessio Bax (Piano)

A. Bax, A. Ottensamer (© Pete Checchia)

In programming a clarinet recital, the “soloist” is usually confronted with two possibilities: either to select works from the core repertory, such as standard compositions by Brahms, von Weber, Schumann, Hindemith and such, or to seek works originally written for other instruments. Mr. Ottensamer went yet another way by not only devoting a large part of his program to works NOT written for clarinet, but also going‑Kremer by which I mean to allow his pianist to shine also as a soloist. To the best of my knowledge and concert experience, Gidon Kremer was the first major artist to present his partners at the keyboard also in solo works. I stress the term “major artist”, for in the past while playing recitals with violinists or cellists, I was also offered a chance to play some solo selections. That was based not on the excellence of the pianist, but rather on a sense of pure friendship. In the case of Mr. Bax, who is not only a superb collaborator but a wonderful pianist, he charmed us with his solo piece in each half of the program and I think this programming idea must be viewed as an outstanding and well deserved act of respect by his colleague Mr. Ottensamer.

The whole program was arched nicely because it started and ended in clarinet transcriptions of piano works. The second half had its own little arc in the sense that it started and ended in jazzy-inspired works, of which the Templeton Pocket Sonata was only one of the two original works on the program, second being the Brahms sonata. Let me start my review from that work, as it was in my mind the least satisfactory performance of the whole, otherwise excellent, recital. What makes Brahms music, especially his late works, so unique is that it eschews any notion of virtuosity, and in the Ottensamer/Bax performance, that seemed to be a domineering element. In other words, you must have virtuosic abilities to play some of these compositions – be it piano or chamber music – but at the same time, you must steer clear of displaying any glibness as it was demonstrated in the faster movements, devoid of gravitas and profundity. Even if the clarinet sang its vocal lines nicely in the Andante un poco Adagio, I also felt some unwelcomed rhythmic irreverence quite out of place in the Brahms score. In the lilting rhythm of Allegretto grazioso, one could have had a bit crisper phrasing which is precisely indicated in the score. The tempi, I presume dictated by the clarinet player, were generally on the fast side and even such a skillful pianist as Mr. Bax was not able to negotiate all the notes in the finale. In my reviews, I rarely direct my readers let alone artists reviewed to specific recordings, but I think that both our artists would do themselves a favor by sampling a new recording of another Germanic player clarinetist Jörg Widmann with Sir András Schiff at the piano, where the players get everything just right. In the case of our soloist that was not exactly a case.

There was not much to complain about the first section of the program, a selection of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words transcribed for clarinet by Mr. Ottensamer. In transcribing these piano miniatures, he adopted a different approach than frequently heard in such adaptations. Whereas a typical violin or cello transcription assigns the melodic line to the solo instrument, in Mr. Ottensamer’s versions, piano was not always reduced to the accompanying role and that was a positive aspect of this method. That allowed Mr. Bax to shine at the piano rather than play a subservient role. Our soloist interrupted his performance after the second song, greeting the audience and expressing his gratitude for being able to play at the Weill Hall and telling us how the time of pandemic was used to extend his clarinet repertoire.

I have yet to mention that Mr. Ottensamer holds a most prestigious position of principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic, has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon as the first solo clarinetist with this label and has a burgeoning career as a soloist and chamber musician. Thus his competence as an instrumentalist was never in doubt even if there were, especially in the first half of the recital, some shaky moments in tone production and phrasing.

The second part of the recital started from the Carnegie Hall premiere of a very entertaining work called Pocket Size Sonata No.2 by the Welsh‑born and London-trained composer Alec Templeton. He was blind from birth and became a fabulous swing‑era pianist; later, in 1935, he arrived in the United States where he became known both as a pianist and author of piano works and other instrumental compositions, often in a tuneful and unpretentious manner. The short, three‑movement Sonata shows the composer’s irreverence and humor even in its tempo markings: “Moderato (and Mellow)”, “Menuetto: Andante gone moto”, finally “Allegretto Quasi cool”. It is a delightful work, jazz‑inspired and from the first notes of the ballade‑like tune, we are transported into a jazz lounge, where the pianist and his partner trade the threads of melody. In the second, we have something akin to Bizet writing Mozart and embellishing his Minuetto with spiky harmonies: again a total charmer to be followed by another witty, short movement classically skewed. After Templeton, Mr. Bax and two of his partners (yes, there was another pianist on stage, Lucille Chung, operating a page‑turning device for her husband) turned their attention to yet another transcription, this time of Astor Piazzolla and his “Café 1930” from Histoire du tango. That work is yet another example of the genre Piazzolla invented, the transformed “tango‑to‑listen‑to”, a slow‑paced romantic, elegiac, relaxed, leisurely evocation of the Buenos Aires cafés. In absence of the plaintive sound of the bandoneon, the clarinet timbre and piano underpinnings were a perfect substitution and a welcome break in the program of the otherwise energetic, jazzy pieces by Templeton and Gershwin.

After Piazzolla, Mr. Bax returned as a soloist: in the first half of the program he offered us a masterful version of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand alone, and in the second half, the much more demanding Chopin Ballade No.4. I don’t recall Bax’s Chopin but if this Ballade was any indication, it would be – for him and for us – a composer worth exploring. His approach to that late Chopin masterpiece was somewhat in the mold of the great Alfred Cortot, with regards to style and freedom. Bax knows how to caress the piano and how to create sensuous phrasing. His large‑scale playing embodies a freedom that can be either tumultuous or subtle, has always ample breathing space and, luckily (unlike some of Cortot’s playing!), always disciplined and perfectly executed. What is also a rarity, Bax pays sufficient attention to the details in harmony, by bringing up the bass line, which is enormously important.

To end their program our artists returned to yet another transcription, this time of the Three Preludes by George Gershwin. The original Preludes are among the most popular of Gershwin solo piano works and the legend has it that there were supposedly five of them, though there’s no record of the other two. Having performed them myself, I always admired and preferred the transcription made by Jascha Heifetz on which the Ottensamer version is based. The relation of Gershwin and the clarinet is well‑known; it is, after all, the clarinet that opens his most popular work, the Rhapsody in Blue. Here, in our clarinetist adaptation, there were two interesting details: first, for the bluesy 2nd Prelude (loosely based on Chopin 2nd of the 24 Preludes op.28), Ottensamer brought with him the lower sounding A clarinet and the sound was indeed far more attractive. Second, the order of the preludes was reversed and in addition, the clarinet started from a cadenza very much in the style of the opening of the already mentioned Rhapsody in Blue. A nice reference, indeed.

The encore? Yet another lovely transcription of the Debussy Prelude “La Fille aux cheveux de lin” from Preludes, Book I (No.8, arr. Andreas Ottensamer).

Roman Markowicz



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