Two world-class instrumentalists playing together can be risky; while no-one doubts their individual abilities, sometimes the chemistry doesn’t work, and chamber music cannot ever be successful without good communication. No such shadow, though, touches the brilliant duet work of Yuja Wang (piano) and Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet); the two collaborated on Ottensamer’s 2019 album Blue Hour, and, Yuja, during her Barbican residency this year, reciprocated by inviting Ottensamer to play for Thursday evening’s duet recital, and the connection between each of them and the music was obvious.
Two core items of the repertoire formed the bulk of the concert: Brahms’ sonatas for clarinet and piano. The pair tackled them with all the subtle intelligence that you’d expect, to deliver a couple of benchmark performances that were full of finely judged co-ordination and a consummate summoning of mood.
The quiet opening of the first sonata involves some challenging leaps in the clarinet, which Ottensamer took completely in his stride, and the delicate gradual growth of the piano part in the second movement allowed the lyricism of the clarinet to shine out, albeit that the opening was taken at an almost impossibly quiet (and magical) dynamic. Some deftly synchronised passages in the third movement gave way to an utterly joyful dancing interplay at the close of the last.
The opening melody of the second sonata has an insouciance about it, with Brahms cleverly allowing its rhythmic stress to remain slightly ambiguous, and both performers responded to this intuitively, such that each iteration of it (and, across the movement, it pops up many times in each instrument) became a fresh reminder of its delight. The slow, warm passage at the beginning of the coda was sheer joy. The second movement was as full of dynamic contrast as it should be; Yuja opened the B-major trio section with a quiet nobility of purpose, and it was followed by some splendid work in the chalumeau register by Ottensamer. The third movement – with all its variations – seems to prefigure the works of the English pastoralists in its material, and the two artists brought this to the fore.
Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie opened the evening, and its account demonstrated the two performers’ understanding of the Impressionist atmosphere of the work, such that, on a chilly November evening, a French summer afternoon, with its sudden gusts of warm wind, was summoned.
Reprising some of the material from Blue Hour, the duet gave us three of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The arrangements, by Ottensamer, were cleverly crafted to showcase the melodic line, and they made for nicely contrasting vignettes, a sense of lyric drive giving the barcarolle of Op. 3 No. 6 direction and speed, while the poised legato of Op. 102 No. 1 only accentuated its restlessness. Of the three, the opening Op. 67 No. 2 was the most Schubertian, its jerky piano chords providing a solid base for the clarinet’s effortlessly flowing melody.
As a complete contrast to all the material, the encore pieces, played with verve, accuracy and a great sense of fun, were two movements from Joseph Horovitz’s jazz-influenced Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano.