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
Everyone interested in Brahms knows of his enthusiasm for Hungarian music, and his Hungarian Dances, transcribed for a variety of forces, remain popular. However, he was more than a cultural dilettante. As the excellent sleeve-note by Kenneth Chalmers explains, Brahms was an assiduous and careful student of Hungarian traditional music. As well as collecting a large quantity of printed Hungarian music he also made his own transcriptions of Hungarian melodies and drew on them in his own original compositions.

This CD explores these links and is led by the playing of Andreas Ottensamer. He is very well qualified for this being of mixed Austrian and Hungarian background. His father and brother are both clarinettists in the Vienna Philharmonic and he himself is now principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic. He plays the Viennese variant of the German-style clarinet. This is rather different from the Boehm system instrument which is more common in the UK and elsewhere. The most visible difference is in the keywork, as you can see from the numerous pictures that adorn the booklet of Ottensamer with his clarinet. More important is the design of the bore, which has a longer cylindrical portion than the Boehm, and also a smaller mouthpiece and reed. The Viennese version of this has a very wide bore. The result is that in the hands of a good player the sound is wonderfully liquid and creamy. Part of the interest and pleasure of this CD is to hear Ottensamer’s characteristic tone, which is highly appropriate for Brahms.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet is the main work here and the first piece on the disc. When Brahms heard the clarinettist Richard Mühfeld he came out of retirement to write for him: two sonatas, a trio and this quintet, which is the finest of them all; it’s a shame that he didn’t write a concerto. I defer consideration of this performance to consider the rest of the programme. This moves progressively away from Brahms and towards Hungarian traditional music, in graduated stages, adding instruments as it goes. They have all been arranged by Stephan Koncz to feature the clarinet; he himself also plays the cello here. After the quintet we start with two gentle arrangements of waltzes, which add a double bass to the line-up for the quintet. Then we have two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Neither were original compositions so here we have arrangements of arrangements, the first fairly close to Brahms and the second much freer. What Ottensamer and Koncz have cleverly done is to take this halfway back to traditional music by adding a slow, partly improvised hallgáto section at the beginning and including a cimbalon in the ensemble. We then have two traditional tunes arranged by Leó Weiner, who, like his contemporaries Bartók and Kodaly, both studied folk music and composed original works. Finally we have a medley of dance tunes from Transylvania, now in Romania but formerly in Hungary, which add an accordion to what we may now call the band. Even here some real Brahms creeps in.

All this is great fun but what about the performance of the quintet? This is a very gentle and romantic reading, indeed quite schmalzy, with Ottensamer leaning on the first notes of phrases in a way I remember from Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus Quartet. This is the Viennese way, and one can’t complain since his credentials are impeccable. Yet Ottensamer can be as fleet of foot as is needed though his virtuosity is without ostentation and one likes him better for it. The string quartet is an ad hoc ensemble of soloists mostly with Vienna or Berlin connections. They play with enthusiasm and fine musicianship but one can tell that they are not an established ensemble. This is not going to be your main version of this work but here we have a concept album, which is, just for once, well conceived and well carried out. The recording is impeccable.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)

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