In Weill Recital Hall last night, Andreas Ottensamer appeared with Alessio Bax. The former is an Austrian clarinetist, the latter an Italian pianist. One thing about Weill—it is just the right size for a clarinet-and-piano recital (or most any recital). Too many recitals get swallowed up in big halls.
Ottensamer is from a royal family—a royal clarinet family. His late father, Ernst, was a principal clarinetist in the Vienna Philharmonic. So is Andreas’s brother, Daniel. Andreas himself is a principal in the Berlin Philharmonic. Funny, but you learn that in the last line—the very last line—of his long bio. The rest is about his solo work, his chamber-music work, his conducting work, and his administrative work.
For most, being a principal in the Berlin Philharmonic would be Achievement No. 1. Here, it is relegated to the last line.
With Alessio Bax, Andreas Ottensamer began with Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words—six of them. These songs are for piano, but Ottensamer has arranged them for his own instrument (plus piano). As he said in remarks to the audience, he had a lot of extra time during the pandemic, like many people, and he used some of it to fashion transcriptions.
Incidentally, it was surprising to hear Ottensamer break from the Mendelssohn songs to speak to the audience. This is an American disease, not a European one: speaking to the audience from the stage. But maybe Herr Ottensamer figured, “When in Rome”?
In songs without words, as in all songs, you have to sing, and our clarinetist and our pianist did a pretty good job of it. They were competent throughout the songs. Indeed, they were competent (or better) throughout the recital at large.
If that sounds like faint praise, you should sit through incompetent performances . . .
It must have provided some comfort to clarinetists and other woodwind players in the audience to know that an Ottensamer—even an Ottensamer—is mortal. Now and then, Andreas failed to phonate. That is, the sound ceased to flow. There were other blemishes as well. But we were listening to a live performance, not a studio recording, for which: thank heaven.
The first half of the recital closed with the Brahms F-minor sonata—one of the two sonatas he wrote for clarinet and piano toward the end of his life. He arranged them for viola, too. May I say that they work for flute as well? In fact, I like them better for flute than I do for viola (though I like clarinet best of all).
In 2006, Emmanuel Pahud—Mr. Ottensamer’s colleague in the Berlin Philharmonic—teamed with Yefim Bronfman for a flute-and-piano recital in Zankel Hall. They played both Brahms sonatas. A marvelous musical experience.
From Ottensamer and Bax, the second movement, Andante un poco adagio, was nicely calibrated. It was unhurried but also un-dragging. Moreover, it was simple, beautifully simple: “ ’Tis the gift to be simple.” The next movement, Allegretto grazioso, swung. It was a lovely dance, and Ottensamer swung, too—I mean, physically, as he played.
After intermission, he let his hair down (great hair, by the way). He also showed his versatility. The same goes for Alessio Bax: versatility plus great hair.
They played the Pocket-Size Sonata No. 2, by Alec Templeton. Who? A Welshman—both lighthearted and serious—who lived from 1910 to 1963. His tempo markings in this sonata are a trip: “Moderato (and Mellow)”; “Menuetto: Andante gone moto”; and “Allegretto: Quasi cool.”
Some of us have tried to be quasi-cool, at a minimum, our entire lives.
Ottensamer and Bax then played a movement from Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango: “Café 1930.” This was pure, and idiomatic, pleasure.
On the first half of the program, between the Mendelssohn and the Brahms, Bax had played a work by himself—and using one hand. This was Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1. Now he played another solo work, this one definitely requiring both hands, and a third, if you could find it: Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52.
Over and over, I have written the same things about Alessio Bax, since he emerged on the scene: He is a tidy pianist. A neat pianist. Very well prepared. Smart, dependable. You can imagine an F-minor Ballade with more fire and élan. But you were always in good hands, with this pianist.
He showed courage, too. What could I possibly mean by that? He tucked into the final pages—a blizzard of notes—undauntedly. These pages were exceptionally clean. Bax played notes that other pianists fudge.
Ottensamer returned for the Three Preludes of Gershwin—the three piano preludes that come from the mid-1920s. Ottensamer had arranged them for clarinet and piano. Another pandemic project, I assume. Heifetz, too, arranged these preludes: for himself (the violin) and piano. He got a lot of mileage out of them, and gave other violinists mileage, too.
If I remember correctly, Ottensamer started with the third prelude, not the first. But he kept the middle prelude in the middle. This is the slow one in C-sharp minor, a little piece of genius. I believe that Ottensamer did some improvising in it, causing the pianist to smile. And in the final prelude—Gershwin’s first—there was a hint of Rhapsody in Blue. The clarinet glissando that opens the Rhapsody.
All in all, Ottensamer showed true Gershwin style, and so did Bax. Moreover, Ottensamer has given other clarinetists “mileage”: in his Mendelssohn and Gershwin arrangements.
What about an encore? I was thinking that Ottensamer should play some more Gershwin: Walking the Dog, that fabulous “promenade” from Shall We Dance, the Astaire-and-Rogers vehicle. It adores the clarinet (and vice versa). But Ottensamer played a Debussy piano prelude: La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”), in his own arrangement. Heifetz played this too, at encore time.
Just as Ottensamer and Bax were finishing the piece—exquisite—a cellphone in Weill Hall went off. Not obnoxiously, but playing some tinkly melody. Eventually, Ottensamer smiled wryly, with his eyes. (His mouth was playing the clarinet.) He could have been mad, judgmental, and censorious. Instead, he was a gent.
There is need for such people in the world.