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Interview, Andreas Ottensamer on Blue Hour

Andreas OttensamerBy any measure, Andreas Ottensamer can surely be called a star of the clarinet. Principal clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic since the age of 21 and an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician, he has championed this often-sidelined instrument on numerous solo recordings.

His latest release is a collaboration with phenomenal pianist Yuja Wang, in which he explores the music of Mendelssohn and his contemporaries through concertante works and arrangements for the clarinet. I spoke to Andreas about the musical Zeitgeist he's focused on here - and the album's enigmatic title...

The sleeve-notes to this recording draw a comparison between the clarinet and the human voice, yet the very first entry in the Brahms Intermezzo sees you negotiate enormous intervals that would challenge the best singers. Do you think there’s a sense in which the clarinet, with its range and agility, can actually go beyond the capabilities of the voice?

They’re not impossible intervals, but certainly very unusual, particularly if one were to find them in a Brahms vocal composition. There are many instruments that claim to be the closest one to the human voice; it’s a nice thing to allude to and there’s a certain truth behind it, particularly for me as the approach I take is to play as naturally as possible in terms of breathing and airflow, which naturally creates a connection with the way a singer would ideally phrase. So I like the comparison, but of course, the instrument is not the voice and it has its peculiarities, both for better and for worse; the idea of “being close to the human voice” is just one characteristic that I can include in my interpretations of certain pieces, and this is particularly applicable to the pieces on this album.

Several of the works you’ve featured here were written with a specific performer in mind. Do you feel that the influence of virtuosi such as Baermann has had a decisive effect on the development of the repertoire for their respective instruments?

I think naturally yes, especially for an instrument like the clarinet that isn’t a mainstream instrument. With the violin or the piano, it’s inevitable that every composer asks themselves if they should write a concerto or solo works for those instruments. With the clarinet, you need to get over a certain hurdle to inspire composers to write for the instrument, and we’re really lucky that we have so many figures like Baermann, especially those with influential musical friends – Stadler with Mozart, Mühlfeld with Brahms, or Baermann with Weber. Baermann was close to Mendelssohn as well, as it happens, so that’s another nice connection.

There are about fifty Lieder ohne Worte by Mendelssohn, so naturally you’ve been selective about which to arrange for the clarinet. Were there any which you tried and found they didn’t lend themselves to this adaptation?

Absolutely; it wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t work, but rather that others worked better. There were some where I thought, 'You know, this could be great'...and then I realised they were too plakativ, as we say in German: too in-your-face, too clear and too simply-structured in terms of the melody and the accompaniment, so there’s no charm in the process of arranging them, for example by extracting a melody line which has some interaction with the piano.

Especially doing this with Yuja I was conscious that it shouldn’t be a simplistic case of soloist-vs-accompaniment in terms of the roles we play; it should be a combined feeling, more like playing chamber music together. So yes, on the strength of that there were a couple that I didn’t choose; but equally there were some that I wanted to include but there just wasn’t enough space.

Arranging “songs without words” is one thing, but when you arrange a genuine vocal Lied for a melody instrument, don’t you worry that the lack of words means something is lost from the music?

If I thought that, I wouldn’t have done it! The idea for this album was in many ways quite a long time in the making, in terms of selecting the pieces. I had also looked at Schubert songs and other Brahms songs, and it became clear that for those, if you take away the words there’s not very much left to give you the depth of the music – the words are too closely connected. You can only adapt pieces that have a nice, clear, touching melody or harmonic structure even in the absence of the words.

That being said, we were also very careful to incorporate the text into our playing as far as we could – we were playing from copies that had the words, and I’m familiar with the texts and the Lieder, so we made that very much the basis of our interpretations.

You’ve stayed within fairly narrow limits of space and time for this recording – all the composers featured are German Romantics. Do you think this place and period is where the best music for the clarinet is to be found?

Well, it’s definitely my favourite – at least at the moment, though of course one’s tastes change over time. I feel very at home and very comfortable when playing this kind of music. Fortunately, too, we have a lot of original repertoire from this period – be it the Brahms Sonata, or the Weber works featured on this album, or other pieces. I think the clarinet is ideally suited to this kind of music, because you can have so many different layers of emotion within the sound of this instrument. I think it really holistically challenges the player; not only technically but also emotionally, so there’s a mixture of things that you have to master in order to really express yourself in that language.

What’s the significance of the title 'Blue Hour'?

Excellent – I’ve succeeded, nobody knows what it means!

There’s a question over whether you give albums a 'title' at all or not, but I was simply so bored by all those very obvious titles like 'The Romantic Clarinet', which just make my eyes roll. So we decided if it was going to have a title, it should be more atmospheric. It has two meanings: one is an allusion to the blue flower that was a symbol of the Romantic movement at that time, so it fits well with that music. The other, the main reason for this choice, is connected with the picture on the cover: the 'blue hour' is a time of day just after the sun has set, or just before it rises, when you get a unique kind of mood. It’s not the kitsch red-sunset sort of thing – it's Romantic, yes, but with a very melancholy side to it, and I think that’s something that Mendelssohn, in particular, contains a great deal of.

Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet), Yuja Wang (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker, Mariss Jansons

Blue Hour was released on Deutsche Grammophon on Friday.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC