Man holding clarinet
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical juxtapositions

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra ‘Mozart Clarinet Concerto’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, May 3 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

There are combinations of composers from different musical eras which work well, and late 18th century meets early 20th century can be one of them. Mozart chamber music meets Elgar hulking great symphony, however, seemed to be an odd mix. Yet this wrench from one musical sensibility to another resulted in a great concert.

Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concerto (K622) is heard so often that one rather takes it for granted as a soothing cosy listen. But guest soloist Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic, really blew the cobwebs away. English conductor Mark Wigglesworth showed his versatility in immaculately steering the WA Symphony Orchestra through both this and Elgar’s Symphony No 1.

Ottensamer, tall and youthful looking in a smart blue suit and what appeared to be sneakers, quickly had the somewhat skittish audience settled into attentive silence. He opened the Allegro at quite a brisk pace, with smoothly legato yet crisp playing and very distinctive low notes. Without large obvious flourishes, he achieved a subtle decorative effect with nimble grace notes and well-judged rubato. The Mozart-sized orchestra followed effortlessly. The Adagio was played perhaps slightly slower than usual and more beautifully rendered than I have ever heard it, with exquisite accuracy and shining limpid tone, again with sonorous support from the conductor.  The final Rondo movement displayed a lively and sunny mood, culminating in rapturous applause from the audience. It did seem a pity this was all we heard from him.

Elgar’s Symphony No 1 (Op 55) was acclaimed at its 1908 premiere to be a great modern work. Its perceived modernity lies in vividly contrasted sections within movements which appear to be grappling with each other, with terms such as “wild juxtapositions”, conflict, struggle, tempestuous, fury etc abounding in the program notes.  Some people might be unkind enough to describe it as a bit of a mess, but it is not incoherent and has a clear structure, well understood by Wigglesworth who, conducting mostly from memory, managed to finesse all the details.

Elgar is famous in providing a good march, however the opening ‘nobilemente’ theme is hardly martial and this performance brought out its rather melancholy aspects, with well-controlled crescendo and diminuendo. The quieter moments displayed the delicacy of clarinets, and flutes, over the massed violins – the orchestra had expanded after the interval by about two thirds.  A gentle segue led into an Allegro displaying blaring brass contrasted with more soothing passages.

The Allegro molto features what the program refers to as a ‘malicious march’, which sounds like something that might be heard in a World War II movie, with a map featuring large arrows advancing on the Polish border, or maybe a phalanx of tanks. The ensuing slow movement, Adagio, is in Elgar’s English pastoral mode but not one of his more interesting excursions. In the final movement Wigglesworth continued to clearly navigate Elgar’s juxtaposing themes including an optimistic restatement of the great ‘nobilmente’ theme from the opening movement which concluded an enjoyable evening of contrasts.

Picture top: Andreas Ottensamer blew the cobwebs away.

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