Mercury Classics/Deutsche Grammophon has released the debut album of Austrian clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer, the first ever solo clarinettist to sign an exclusive agreement with the Yellow Label. Portraits – The Clarinet Album features concertos by Copland, Spohr and Cimarosa, plus arrangements of short pieces. Andreas Ottensamer is accompanied on the recording by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for the 24-year-old clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer makes you rub your eyes. He has attained a remarkable curriculum vitae, beginning with his appointment as principal clarinetist of the Berlin Phil. and his acceptance at Harvard. His father and older brother are both principal clarinetists with the Vienna Phil. (the family is from upper Austria). Why should such a fantastic tale stop there? Andreas has also won competition first prizes on cello and piano, and he is the first clarinetist to be signed as an exclusive DG artist. One wonders if he glows in the dark.
The three Copland classics on this disc–Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Rodeo–are all ballet scores, and from the very first bars of Billy, with its evocative depiction of the wide-open prairies, you are firmly in the territory of music that tells a story. But you don't need to follow all the ins and outs of each story to enjoy music which paints as vivid a picture of rural America as you could hope for. If the sprightly "Hoe Down" from Rodeo brings a splash of colour to concert programmes, the remarkable thing about so much of the music in these three pieces is how quietly sensitive it is. And while Michael Tilson Thomas does not hold back in wringing every last ounce of splashy razzmatazz, he is equally the master of introspective music which clearly demonstrates that you don't need to be loud to be a populist. The recordings were made in the San Francisco Symphony's home, Davies Symphony Hall. You couldn't hope for more authentic performances than this–more than 76 minutes of dyed-in-the-wool Americana.
Aaron Copland may well be the best-known, the most loved, and the all-around greatest of twentieth century American composers, but his music from the '20s and '30s is still relatively unknown, still relatively unloved, and of still questionable greatness. Was Copland the Modernist too far out to connect to a big audience so he re-created himself as Copland the Populist to become the best-known, most loved, and greatest American composer? But was his Piano Concerto from 1926 really too jazzy and vulgar, his Symphonic Ode from 1928 really too cerebral and severe, his Piano Variations from 1930 really too harsh and austere, and his Short Symphony from 1934 really too rhythmic and complex or was it lack of familiarity made them seem so? From this 1996 recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, one would have to vote for the latter because Copland the Modernist is every bit as great a composer as Copland the Populist.
Samuel Barber, sticking broadly to the European concerto format and ethos, produced a three-movement work that in many respects is gestural, with, as is revealed in the beautiful slow movement, the sheer gorgeousness of which he was capable in composition. Aaron Copland's short concerto, on the other hand, embraces the full jazz idiom and is a blazing masterpiece that should be played more often in concert. And, coming from the other end and in a different direction, we have George Gershwin, getting his inimitable style and memorable tunes into the brilliant and breezy classical format of his Piano Concerto, breathtakingly played by Wang and the RSNO, an orchestra clearly comfortable in the idiom.