Daniel Ottensamer (clarinet, above), Christoph Traxler (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London, 27 June 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 27 July
What’s the music?
Luigi Bassi Concert Fantasia on themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto (1901) (13 minutes)
Zemlinsky arr. James Breed 2 Fantasies on Poems of Richard Dehmel Op. 9 (1990) (6 minutes)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962) (13 minutes)
Horovitz Clarinet Sonatina (1981) (13 minutes)
Daniel Ottensamer and Cristoph Traxler have not recorded this music, but the Spotify playlist below gives a guide to other versions in the event you are unable to access the broadcast link:
About the music
A range of music for clarinet and piano, most of which lies slightly off the beaten track compared to repertoire staples.
We begin in Italy, with the clarinettist and composer Luigi Bassi (1833-1871), whose concert fantasia on themes from Rigoletto is arguably his most popular work. We then move to Vienna and Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer who for a long time was better known as teacher to Arnold Schoenberg. In more recent times his music has taken on greater prominence, for it sits between the romantic approach of Brahms and Mahler and the music of his pupil, which eventually left tonality behind altogether.
The Richard Dehmel fantasies were written for piano, but James Breed discerned suitable lines for clarinet and arranged them with the instrument in mind.
Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is his last piece of chamber music, written in the summer before his death in 1962. Dedicated to Arthur Honegger, it was written for the clarinettist Benny Goodman.
Joseph Horovitz has been a prolific English composer, particularly for woodwind, and at the age of 90 still cuts a sprightly figure – he was in the audience for this concert! Born in Vienna, Horovitz emigrated to England at the start of the Second World War, and studied music in London. His sonatina for clarinet and piano, a short work with jazzy inflections, was completed in 1981.
A fine and varied program of music for clarinet and piano, given with some panache by Daniel Ottensamer and Christoph Traxler. The Poulenc was an especially fine performance, with the faster movements taken at a daring pace. This meant a little bit of phrasing on the melodies was compromised, but the overall effect was thrilling.
This was also the case with Bassi’s Concert Fantasia, a real crowd-pleaser of a performance, which was nicely complemented by the heady romanticism of the Zemlinsky, effectively transcribing for clarinet and piano in James Breed’s sensitive arrangement.
The Horovitz was great to watch, especially with the composer’s enthusiastic reaction at the end. There were some persuasive rhythms here, some of which seemed to have been directly imported from the West Indies, and Ottensamer moved around the stage as he played, fully immersed in the music.
Another special moment was to follow in Popov’s arrangement of a late Brahms Intermezzo, bringing pure contemplation to the hall and some incredibly sensitive, quiet playing from both clarinet and pianist Christoph Traxler, who expertly shaded his lines throughout.
What should I listen out for?
1:20 – the piano begins with a fanfare to make the audience sit up, preparing the way for the clarinet in a manner that suggests a grand orchestral piece. The clarinet arrives at 2:07, almost imperceptibly but then showing off through music of great athleticism. Once arrived it settles into a graceful theme. Then after another grand passage the clarinet showcases one of Verdi’s main themes at 4:23. The music becomes light and agile.
There is some very enjoyable back and forward between the clarinet and piano as they play Verdi’s themes and their variants, as though they are dancing on the stage themselves. The theatrical performance tricked the audience (including me!) at 10:10, where we thought the two had finished – but instead there were more athletics to come, finishing with a flourish at 14:00.
Zemlinsky / Breed
15:38 – Voice of the evening – as you might expect for music of the evening the mood is languid, the clarinet murmuring above the hazy piano. The harmonic language is rich with added notes, adding to the enchanted atmosphere.
18:45 – Forest rapture – this piece is more outwardly expressive in the clarinet part, but still carries a humid atmosphere, the trees close at hand. The arrangement for clarinet is a natural one.
23:28 – a bright, staccato start soon leads to one of the main themes of the sonata’s first movement, given on the clarinet at 23:43. Poulenc utilises the instrument’s capacity for bittersweet emotions, with music that alternates between charm and mischief. At 25:40 the music takes on a slow, thoughtful mood which the clarinet tops with a melody of great beauty. Then the music of the opening reappears, in a more sombre form.
28:49 – the second movement is a deeply felt Romanza, led by the clarinet with a lyrical opening, before another gem of a quiet melody at 29:36. This is countered by a higher, more raucous thought.
33:33 – after some introspection both clarinet and piano burst out of the blocks with an exuberant finale. It’s hard to resist the bright and breezy clarinet theme!
37:43 – a settled and fluid start from both clarinet and piano, quite lyrical in its delivery, though the music becomes livelier and has an undercurrent of angst in the exchanges between the two instruments. Then we return to the more convivial mood of the opening.
42:56 – a shadow falls across the start of the slow movement, with both instruments quiet and reserved.
47:14 – this is the most distinctive movement of the three, with a swaying rhythm immediately given out from the piano. This is a license for the clarinet to roam free, and it does so with persuasive good spirits.
51:30 – an arrangement of a Brahms piano piece – the Intermezzo, Op.118 no.2, made by Nicolai Popov. It is a lovely, autumnal piece of music.
Further listening / viewing
The clarinet was a very important instrument for one of this year’s anniversary composers, Max Reger. Reger is an undervalued composer, and some of his most expressive music was written for clarinet and piano, as this album from Eduard Brunner and Gerhard Oppitz reveals: