At first glance, the repertoire for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s latest Masters Series concert appeared a little threadbare, with a program comprised of just Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Elgar’s First Symphony. However, WASO’s programming instincts were on the mark. The two masterworks – each written at the respective composer’s height of compositional maturity – made for an engaging evening of music, as the charming brilliance of Mozart’s concerto served as the light to the darkness of Elgar’s grandiose, dramatic symphony. To pad out the program would only add unnecessary deadweight to the performance; sometimes less (if that term can be applied to these particular works) is more.
Andreas Ottensamer. Photo © Katja Ruge/Decca
WASO’s intelligent program was complemented by two highly anticipated guest artists; the internationally renowned conductor Mark Wigglesworth, and Andreas Ottensamer, Principal Clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic. Keen to capitalise on such anticipation (and Ottensamer’s prominent social media presence), WASO even hosted an ‘Instagram takeover’, which saw the leadup to the performance documented on its Instagram page by the clarinettist himself. Whether it be the star power of the soloists, savvy social media strategy, or repertoire, turnout saw Perth Concert Hall at almost full capacity.
For all its cheery brilliance, it’s hard not to regard Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with a degree of melancholy; as his final purely instrumental work, Mozart died just two months after the concerto’s premiere in October of 1791. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Ottensamer’s interpretation expertly balanced contemplative introspection and crackling vitality; a clarinettist’s ode to the memory of Mozart. It was simply a joy to watch Ottensamer play; a mixture of effortlessness and matter-of-factness that indicated that to play the clarinet is as natural as breathing. Every rapid run and large leap between registers was executed with assurance and without showiness, and Ottensamer’s warm tone never faulted in its evenness across the demands of the solo line.
Ottensamer and Wigglesworth worked beautifully together to create a concerto that was about more than just the soloist; Ottensamer responding to the lines in the orchestra relevant to his own, and Wigglesworth coaxing bursts of colour from WASO in captivating tutti sections. In fact, it was refreshing to witness such a considerate soloist in Ottensamer – his entries were always a gentle ascent from the orchestral texture, his articulation in rapid sections always colourful without being aggressive, and the tempi of the Adagio – the soul of the concerto – was extremely moving, yet brisk enough to avoid self-indulgent wallowing. Sometimes the beginnings and ends of Ottensamer’s phrases were lost in the texture in his sensitivity, and every now and then it appeared that Wigglesworth and WASO were racing to catch up with Ottensamer in the more energetic sections. However, these moments were few and far between, and never detracted from his captivating interpretation.
Wigglesworth appeared to be as comfortable with the music of Elgar as Ottensamer was with Mozart. Elgar’s First Symphony can throw a lot at a conductor, with its swift changes in temperament and complex orchestration. However, Wigglesworth and WASO handled Elgar’s score brilliantly. Wigglesworth’s strength in this work seemed to be his ability to locate and extract dramatic tension from the score, and to mould these moments into their most effective forms. The transition from the noble opening theme to the turbulent Allegro was masterfully handled, and Wigglesworth allowed this relationship between grandeur and strife to crystallise wonderfully in the fourth movement, which was easily the highlight of the performance. The orchestra sounded almost just as at ease with Elgar’s score as they do with their preferred German Romantic repertoire. Though some (but not all) wind lines were too mellow in their sonorities and failed to cut through the orchestral texture, WASO captured the essence of British nobility that permeated much of the symphony. Moments of delightful playing were a constant throughout the work. The timpani and double basses were the powerhouse of the first movement, the flute and violin solos of the second movement brought streaks of light to the otherwise stormy texture, and the principal winds seamlessly passing their solo lines back and forth in the third movement was extremely impressive.
For all the beauty and soul encountered in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and the breadth of moods offered by Elgar’s First Symphony, it certainly did not feel as if the audience of WASO had encountered a program with just two pieces on offer.