Saturday, 19 December 2020

A thirty-year gap and clarinettist Ernst Ottensamer's last concerto recording: conductor Richard Stamp talks about the challenge and rewards of bringing his latest disc to fruition

The Academy of London
The Academy of London

In 1991, conductor Richard Stamp and the Academy of London, the ensemble that he founded, recorded Richard Strauss' prelude to his opera Capriccio and the Duet Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with two principals from the Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraErnst Ottensamer (clarinet), and Stepan Turnovsky (bassoon). The recording was for a planned Richard Strauss disc as part of an ongoing series of discs of the composer's work on Virgin Classics which included orchestral songs with Gundula Janowitz and an award-winning recording of Metamorphosen. Finally, in 2014, Richard Stamp was able to complete recording the disc with two works by Aaron Copland including the Clarinet Concerto with Ernst Ottensamer; this would be Ottensamer's final concerto recording. The resulting disc of music by Richard Strauss and Aaron Copland came out on Signum Classics earlier this month. So why the nearly 30 year wait between recording and disc? I met up with Richard Stamp by Zoom to find out more.

Richard Stamp
Richard Stamp
Born in the USA and trained in Vienna, Richard had founded the Academy of London in 1980. He had a strong interest in Austrian music and musicians and besides the Academy of London, he ran the largest series of Austrian orchestral concerts in the UK. The Academy of London's ongoing link with Virgin Classics included projects to record music by Richard Strauss and by Aaron Copland. By 1991, the plan was for a Richard Strauss disc to cover the prelude to Capriccio, the Duet Concertino with principals from the Vienna Philharmonic and the incidental music to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And there were plans for further Aaron Copland works to follow-up Richard's recording of Copland's Lincoln Portrait with Anthony Hopkins. The recording of the first two Strauss works happened, but then Virgin Classics was suddenly sold to EMI. The company had a significant backlog of unreleased CDs and Richard's projects were quietly dropped. 

However, Richard's Austrian concerts continued and at one of these Ottensamer gave his first performance of Copland's Clarinet Concerto. It was a work which Ottensamer had long wanted to play but had not been able to do so in Vienna, and after the performance, Ottensamer said that he would love to record it.

But recordings and plans simply sat on the shelf. Richard had a period of illness, and there just wasn't the sponsorship around to record Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme to complete the Richard Strauss disc. Eventually, Richard was introduced to Signum Classics and the plan was hatched to complete the recording projects. Money was raised, and the master tapes of the sessions from 1991 were re-edited, and Copland's Appalachian Spring (in its original version for 13 wind instruments) and Clarinet Concerto were recorded at the Sage Gateshead with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, with Ottensamer finally getting his wish to record the concerto. (Ottensamer died unexpectedly in 2017, three years after making the recording). The resulting disc is the one which has been issued, completing a process which started 30 years ago.

Of course, the programme for the new disc is not the all Richard Strauss programme which Richard had planned, but a combination of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and his younger, but equally long-lived, American contemporary Aaron Copland (1900-1990). It is not a programme that Richard would have thought of in 1991, but he has subsequently realised that it works extraordinarily well and wishes he could say that he had originally thought of it. All the works on the new disc were written in the 1940s, two by the Third Reich's leading composer and two by a Russian-Jewish-born American composer. An extraordinary link, four works from the darkest decade in human history by two of the major combatants. There is also a thematic link between the prelude from Richard Strauss' 1942 opera Capriccio and the opening of the Duet Concertino which was written in 1946/47.

Richard is also highly delighted with the final designs for the CD's cover which includes portraits of the two composers both dating from the 1940s against a drab background which, to Richard, reflects the drabness of that decade.

Richard Strauss in his study at Garmisch in 1949 (Photo from http://www.richardstrauss.at/english.html
Richard Strauss in his study at Garmisch in 1949 (Photo from Richard Strauss website)

Richard Strauss wrote the Duet Concertino in 1946/47, for solo clarinet, solo bassoon, string orchestra and harp. In writing it, Strauss had an old friend in mind who had been principal bassoon of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It was his final purely instrumental work and joins such works as the Oboe Concerto (1945), the Second Horn Concerto (1943), Metamorphosen (1944/45) and the Four Last Songs as music from Strauss' Indian summer. Yet, curiously the Duet Concertino is hardly known. When I mention this to Richard, he comments that neither the recording engineer nor the record producer for the recent Copland recordings had heard of the Duet Concertino

Richard points out that the work is so unlike what people expect from the composer, it is not overblown and almost has a Falstaffian quality to it. He calls it sui generis. Strauss put the work together with extreme precision, it is difficult, but it doesn't have a single show-stopping tune. Richard cannot understand why more orchestras do not programme it so that they can show off their orchestral principals. There are not so many recordings of the work, Richard names those of Andre Previn and of Daniel Barenboim as notable, but for him, Rudolf Kempe's recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden as part of the complete Strauss orchestral works remains the greatest. He feels that Kempe had a real feeling for the work's sense of form and musical grammar.

Ernst Ottensamer with sons Daniel and Andreas Ottensamer (Photo © Lukas Beck)
 Ernst Ottensamer with sons Daniel and Andreas Ottensamer (Photo © Lukas Beck)

Clarinettist Ernest Ottensamer (1955-2017) joined the Vienna Philharmonic as principal in 1983 and caused something of a sensation. This was the period that Colin Davis worked with the orchestra (the only time Davis performed with them), doing Wagner's Die Meistersinger at the Vienna State Opera, recording Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo and Juliet (Richard describes the recordings as dying a death). Davis also chose Ottensamer for a disc of concertos by Mozart, Spohr and Weber (originally on DECCA). This was the moment that Ottensamer might have chosen to make a solo career, but it meant leaving a highly paid job, and not many European clarinettists have managed to make a solo career. As a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, Ottensamer was part of the orchestra which played for the Vienna State Opera so that unlike players from other orchestras, he did not have time to run a solo career alongside his orchestral one. Richard points to the contrast with the Berlin Philharmonic where the principals are positively encouraged to have solo careers.

Ottensamer created something of a clarinet dynasty, his two sons Daniel and Andreas are clarinettists and the three performed together as The Clarinotts.

Richard describes recording Ottensamer in concertos as a challenge. As a player he was Will-o'-the-wisp, his tempos were fluid. As such he was difficult to accompany, and the resulting tapes needed a lot of editing. His tempi were also somewhat idiosyncratic; whilst his phrasing in the Copland was magnificent his speeds with flexible. Nor does his performance suggest the jazz influence that lies behind the work. Copland wrote the concerto for Benny Goodman and Goodman's performances (and recording) of the work are unique in Richard's view for the way Goodman suggests elements of jazz.

SIGCD654 Cover
Ottensamer's tone on his clarinet was distinctive too; whilst he was influenced by the full, central European clarinet sound, he also produced a very white sound, playing without vibrato. Ottensamer's companion in the recording of the Duet Concertino was fellow Vienna Philharmonic principal Stepan Turnovsky. Turnovsky is the son of the Czech conductor Martin Turnovsky who fled on the Russian invasion of 1968. Stepan Turnovsky's training is entirely Viennese, in fact, Richard, Ottensamer and Turnovsky all studied at the same Vienna music school.

Richard originally studied theology and history at Cambridge but conducted a lot as well. Georg Solti heard him conducting and encouraged him, and Richard would be one of the few (if not the only) private pupils that Colin Davis took.  He subsequently studied at the Vienna Academy (now Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien, abbreviated to MDW).

Richard was born in the USA (he had dual nationality) and his ideal string sound was inspired by that he heard in the USA and in Vienna, and which did not exist at that time in the UK. He founded the Academy of London to specifically create this sound. In its early days, the ensemble used violinists who had studied in the USA, who were familiar with the saturated full sound that Richard was aiming for. He used some major string players, Richard describes some of the early line-ups as amazing. The ensemble created an extraordinary type of sound, which is very present in its recording of Strauss' Metamorphosen which is now available on Erato coupled with Strauss songs sung by soprano Gundula Janowitz [available from Amazon].

Richard hopes that, though the recording, people will not only discover the playing of such a major European clarinettist as Ernst Ottensamer, but will realise the delights of Strauss' Duet Concertino.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Pagliacci: A powerful stripped back staging of the Verismo classic reveals the work's integral strengths  - opera review
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  • Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven: on the trail of the Scottish Gaelic origins of Beethoven's folk-song arrangements  - TV programme review
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