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Blue Hour
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118/2 (1893) (arr. Nicolai Popov for clarinet and piano) [5:47]
Wie Melodien zieht es mir,” Op. 105/1 (1886) (arr. Ottensamer for clarinet and piano) [2:09]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Lieder ohne Worte (1829-45) (arr. Ottensamer for clarinet and piano): Op. 30/4 [2:31]; Op. 30/6 [3:08]; Op. 67/2 [2:15]; Op. 67/3 [2:25]; Op. 85/4 [2:35]; Op. 85/6 [1:52]; Op. 102/1 [2:49]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, Op. 73 (1811) [20:04]
Grand Duo concertant in E flat major for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 48 (1815-16) [16:10]
Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet), Yuja Wang (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker / Mariss Jansons
rec. 2018, Berlin Philharmonie (concerto), Meistersaal (the rest), Berlin, Germany

This could have been just another “vanity” concept album with its title “Blue Hour” and copious colour photos of the attractive performers, clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and pianist Yuja Wang. However, it is anything but that and one that disarms criticism. Ottensamer, while an outstanding clarinet soloist on his own, is a true chamber music partner and, as principal clarinet (along with Wenzel Fuchs) of the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestral musician and primer inter pares in this account of the Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 1.

The arrangements for clarinet and piano of short pieces by Brahms and Mendelssohn are tasteful and idiomatic. Ottensamer and Wang make an ideal partnership here without one dominating the other. The clarinetist arranged all of these with the sole exception of the Brahms Intermezzo, which was transcribed by one Nicolai Popov. Having played the Intermezzo myself, I could not imagine it as anything other than a piano solo, but the clarinet only enhances its autumnal flavour. Ottensamer has a gorgeous tone, warm and woody, with nary a harsh note. The Brahms song, “Wie Melodien zieht es mir,” is also beautifully done and the piano gets to shine on occasion, too. Now if only the duo would record the Brahms clarinet sonatas.

The artists chose seven of Mendelssohn’s popular Songs without Words that contain plenty of variety and contrast well with each other. As noted in the CD booklet, Ottensamer considers the Romantic song as the main focus of the album and this is more than borne out by the Mendelssohn arrangements. The programme works best, I think, if played in the order that the works are presented. The first of those is the light and joyous Op. 85/6 with the mellifluous clarinet contrasting the bright and crisp piano. A real delight! Following this is the darker and at times melancholy Op. 102/1. Here sentiment is fully expressed without sentimentality on the performers’ part. Then later in the programme we have Op. 30/4, taken at an effervescently fast tempo, Wang’s trembling repeated piano notes are clear and the rhythm sustained very well. The other songs are as fine: Op. 67/3, wistful and tranquil; Op. 30/6, the folkish Venetian Gondola Song; Op. 67/2, vivacious piano partnered with songful clarinet; and Op. 85/4, lyrical with Ottensamer’s ravishing tone in the spotlight.

While these Brahms and Mendelssohn pieces are all engaging, they may be thought of individually as encore selections. The meat so to speak of the disc are the two Weber works, staples of the clarinet repertoire. The Grand Duo concertant is, as the title suggests, a virtuosic work for both clarinet and piano. Weber composed it for Heinrich Baermann, a leading clarinetist of the era for whom he also wrote his two clarinet concertos. The work is in three movements—a witty Allegro, a pensive Andante con moto, and a charming Rondo. Ottensamer describes the piece as an homage to Italian opera and notes that it quotes a popular tune in the first movement’s second theme. Ottensamer and Wang give the work a sparkling performance without either musician dominating the other. While the piece is lighthearted for the most part, the second movement is more serious with its rather sad song. The clarinet and then the piano really let loose at the end of the Rondo, bringing the work to a close in exhilarating fashion.

Weber’s clarinet concertos are, of course, well represented on disc. I have usually thought of them as pieces to show off the abilities of clarinetists. This is especially true of the Concerto No. 2, where the soloist has a field day and the orchestra dutifully accompanies for the most part. The Concerto No. 1, on the other hand, is a more serious work, but I have never heard it performed with as much depth as it gets here. Ottensamer’s role as Berlin Philharmonic principal ensures that orchestra’s role is not in any way diminished. One can particularly appreciate this performance because of the fine interaction between the soloist and the orchestra members. Besides the mellow and secure clarinet playing, the bassoons, flutes, and oboes make a telling contribution. The highlight for me, though, is the poetic Adagio ma non troppo slow movement where Weber’s experience as an opera composer is well demonstrated—the clarinet emulating the human voice. Then beginning before the 3:00 mark the clarinet accompanied by a fabulous Berlin horn trio makes one wish this music would never end. It is glorious. Mariss Jansons has established a reputation as an excellent concerto accompanist before and he easily lives up to that acclaim here. Whether in the stormy Allegro first movement or the jolly and colourful Rondo, this account puts all others I have heard in the shade. Indeed, I am now convinced that work is nearly of the stature of Mozart’s great Clarinet Concerto.

Oh, and that title Blue Hour? According to Ottensamer, it refers to the “brief interval between sunset and nocturnal darkness,” a period of “melancholy thoughts of a particular person, as dreamy as the memories of past happiness that sometimes envelop us in the transfigured twilight.” I can only add that one should arouse oneself from this reverie and get a copy of the disc straightaway.

Leslie Wright

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