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The Hungarian Connection
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet in b minor, Op.115 [39:50]
Two Waltzes in A, Op.39/15 and Op.52/6 [2:50]
Johannes BRAHMS/Eduard REMÉNYI (1828-1898)
Hungarian Dance No.7 in F (arranged by Stephan Koncz) [2:10]
Johannes BRAHMS/Miska BORZÓ (1800-1864) (?)
Hungarian Dance No.1 in g minor (Isteni Csárdás) (arranged by Stephan Koncz) [5:26]
Leó WEINER (1885-1960)
Két Tétel
(Two Dances) - Búsuló juhász (Woeful Shepherd) (arranged by Stephan Koncz) [2:27]
Két Tétel - Csurdöngolo (Székely Barn Dance) (arranged by Stephan Koncz) [2:00]
Dances from Transylvania (arranged by Stephan Koncz) [6:47]
Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet)
Leonidas Kavakos, Christoph Koncz (violin)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Stephan Koncz (cello)
Ödon Rácz (double bass)
Predrag Tomic (accordion)
Oskar Ökrös (cimbalom)
rec. Nikodemus-Kirche, Berlin, 2014. DDD

This CD effectively combines two programmes in one. The first contains a performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet to rival the very best. The second offers an exploration of the sources of his Hungarian Dances, demonstrating that the composer’s connection with Hungarian music was much closer than is usually assumed.

This is Andreas Ottensamer’s second recording for DG.  We seem not to have been alone in missing his first, Portraits – the Clarinet Album, on which the main works were the clarinet concertos of Copland and Spohr and Arthur Benjamin’s concerto arrangement of Cimarosa (DG 4810131).  You can stream it from Qobuz or sample if you are not a subscriber.

I’m very pleased that we haven’t missed the second album.  My only reservation about placing this recording of the Quintet at or near the top of the tree is that it isn’t coupled with the Clarinet Trio as most of the other contenders are, such as the recording with Thea King and the Gabrieli Quartet (Hyperion CDA66107 – Download News 2012/21).

Ottensamer and his team adopt tempi very close to those of King and the Gabrielis except in the finale.  In the second movement adagio they are within seconds of each other at a speed which I think ideal for the movement – just slow enough to realise its emotional potential without sounding funereal.  I find it hard to choose between them; perhaps Ottensamer, with his Viennese clarinet, is slightly more effective in bringing out the thoughts that lie too deep for tears.  The wider-bore instrument gives his playing an even mellower tone, akin to the use of the basset instrument which is actually essential for the Mozart Clarinet Quintet to be played without transposition, as in King’s own Hyperion recording (CDA66199).  The use of Ottensamer’s slightly mellower instrument may actually clinch the matter for you.

The variation-based finale, however, will prove even more divisive and decisive.  The basic marking is con moto and I think that King and the Gabrielis come closer to that at 8:50 than Ottensamer’s team (10:13).  On the other hand, the playing is so beautiful that I’m equally won over by the new performance.  If you prefer your Brahms to be a little dreamy, the new recording is for you.  I don’t usually like slow Brahms – the only recording of the Violin Concerto that really works for me is Heifetz’s, where the first movement is taken at a goodly pace – but this time I’m won over.

I’m also won over by the second half of the programme: lively arrangements by cellist Stephan Koncz of other music by Brahms with a Hungarian flavour, then of music in a folksy idiom by Leó Weiner and finally, to bring the house down, a set of traditional dances from Transylvania.  For his arrangements of the Hungarian Dances Koncz has gone back to Brahms’ sources, including his violinist friend Eduard Reményi.

I’ve been a sucker for the cimbalom ever since its appearance in the Orson Welles film The Third Man started a craze and Anton Karas’s recording of the Harry Lime theme became a best-seller. (Decca Cinema Gala 4212642, download only, or Naxos Nostalgia 8.120880).  The fact that it features prominently in these arrangements clinches it for me.  Forget about the Brahms Clarinet Trio for the moment – I hope that Ottensamer will give it to us in due course – this deserves to be a best-seller.

A glance at the cast list above highlights the quality of the support which Ottensamer receives, chief among them Leonidas Kavakos, ‘borrowed’ from another Universal company, Decca.  In fact there’s a considerable element of inter-label co-operation here: my review copy carries both Mercury and DG logos.  It appears to be sold in the USA as the former and in the UK as the latter.

The recording is bright and colourful as befits the performance and the notes in the booklet are helpful, albeit in a rather small font.

Unless you must have the Brahms Clarinet Quintet and Trio together, this new recording is one of the best.  If you like the second half of the programme it’s a winner.  For the two aspects combined it deserves to be a Record of the Month.  We have waited since 2012 for Ottensamer’s second recording: I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the third.

Brian Wilson

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