The expression “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” could not be more appropriate than when applied to the Ottensamer family of musicians. The father, Ernst, was principal clarinettist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1983 until his untimely death last year. His eldest son Daniel joined him as co-principal clarinettist in Vienna in 2009, and his younger son Andreas became principal clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2011.
Andreas Ottensamer has transformed his rich musical legacy into a new and personal style of clarinet playing whose roots are firmly planted in the Viennese tradition. This approach is heralded by the title of his most recent recording “New Era” (Decca 481 4711DH): the composers included (Stamitz, Danzi and Mozart) could not be more canonical, but the interpretations are wonderfully fresh. Like his Berlin Philharmonic colleagues Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Albrecht Mayer (oboe) who join him on the disc, Ottensamer plays with an expressive and vocal approach uncharacteristic of many orchestral musicians.
Ottensamer’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet, K. 622 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo on 4 November 2018 was a perfect example of his reinvention of the Viennese tradition. He took the essence of period performance practice and applied it to a modern interpretive style, most notably by performing the work on the instrument for which it was written: a “basset clarinet” with a lower range extended to a low c. This special instrument was the fruit of a creative partnership between Mozart, his clarinettist friend Anton Stadler (1752-1812), and the clarinet maker Theodor Lotz (1747-1792). Mozart reveled in the expanded range of the basset clarinet; not only in the Concerto, but also in the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings K581 and in Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto” from La clemenza di Tito. Mozart saw in the basset clarinet an opportunity to replicate operatic dialogues on a single instrument, since it could sound as both Tamino and Pamina, both Papagena and Papageno, both Queen of the Night and Sarastro. And in this—like Tamino’s flute—it was a truly “magical” instrument. Ottensamer’s reconstruction of the clarinet part (Mozart’s autograph manuscript is lost) highlighted its deep cello-like qualities, for example in the closing measures of the Adagio.
Ottensamer’s instrument, however, also departs from the Viennese tradition. He belongs to a new generation of players who experiment with reeds made from plastic, a more stable material than the traditional but often frustratingly inconsistent arundo donax cane. Although Ottensamer plays with a smooth and silvery sound, one cannot help but notice that it lacks the woody resonance of the best Viennese clarinettists from his father’s generation, such as Peter Schmidl and Alfred Prinz. Nevertheless, Ottensamer captivated his audience with his remarkable ability to play pianissimo in a manner that remains expressive and projects over the orchestra, for example in the return of the principal theme of the Adagio.
Mozart’s concerto, written just weeks before the composer’s death, is famous for its autumnal melancholy character. Ottensamer’s reading was above all one of youthful exuberance, which is only natural for this twenty-nine year old virtuoso. The Rondo, in particular, was delightfully playful, especially in the freedom Ottensamer took in the transitions and the returns of the rondo theme. The brilliance of his playing allowed one to forgive the occasional passages that lacked clarity, and the listener was left eager to hear how this soloist’s interpretation will mature with time. As an encore, Ottensamer performed the clarinet solo that begins the aria “E lucevan le stelle” in Act III of Puccini’s Tosca. Only an artist of his caliber could transform this excerpt performed without orchestral accompaniment into such a hauntingly beautiful moment.
The concerto was framed by energetic performances of Mozart’s overture to Così fan tutte and Haydn’s Symphony No. 8 (“Le Soir”). Conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy brought out fine playing from the orchestra, particularly the violin, violoncello and double bass soloists in the Haydn symphony.