When your father plays principal clarinet in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, perhaps you are destined to take up the instrument, but Andreas Ottensamer’s musical journey initially set out along a very different path. He first learnt piano and then cello before eventually changing to the clarinet “quite late” at the age of 13. Later, the Ottensamers would become the world’s reigning clarinet dynasty. Older brother Daniel joined their father, Ernst, as principal of the Vienna Philharmonic, while Andreas’ career took him to Berlin, first as principal at the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and then to the Berlin Philharmonic

Andreas Ottensamer
© Anatol Kotte | Mercury

“Looking back,” Andreas explains, “the special thing growing up – which I didn't realise at the time – is that when you're surrounded by music, you take it for granted in the most positive way. If I had to pick one early memory, it would be going to the Wiener Staatsoper as a very young child with my mother, where my father was playing in the pit... one of the most vivid images of my childhood. The opera that grew close to my heart very quickly was Tosca, not just because of the great Act 3 clarinet solo but the entire set, the whole experience. For a young child, Tosca is an opera where a lot happens and the plot is quite easy to understand. And of course, the music is beautiful.”

Ernst sadly passed away last year, having been Vienna Philharmonic principal for an astonishing 34 years. I asked Andreas if he could describe Ernst’s sound and compare it with his own. “It's very difficult to describe sound as it's such a personal, subjective matter, but his playing – rather than his sound – was very founded in the Viennese clarinet playing tradition, which has such a huge history and importance. Without any detours, he would play in a very straightforward way which seemed to be just how the music should be. Of course, there is more than one correct way to play, but listening to him, you would always think “Yes, that makes absolute sense”. Soundwise, this was also what we grew up with so it was entirely implemented in my own musical approach. Taking that as my base, it greatly influenced my musical personality. When I went to Berlin, I had so many musical inspirations and inflections of approach, I would like to think it opened different doors to change my views, or at least enlarge the scale of possibilities, although always sticking to that Viennese approach to clarinet playing.”

Ottensamer plays a clarinet specially made for him by Johanna and Otto Kronthaler. We talked about different clarinet systems and makes. “With the clarinet, it's very beautiful to have these different schools. There's the German system and the French system which have different fingerings and everything. The Viennese system is similar to the German one but it has a wider bore so this results in a darker sound with a full body to it and always this roundness of playing. My instrument complements those factors to the maximum – that's what I was looking for and what I most appreciate about my instrument compared to a French or German instrument. The makers (the Kronthalers) are just crazy perfectionists and amazing musicians themselves – it's a one in ten million chance to find someone who is so aligned to my playing and we found out that we are very similar in our approaches. It's a husband and wife team who make the instruments and they understand perfectly what I need.”

Ottensamer plays on plastic and on cane reeds. “I like to use very strong reeds which takes time to get used to but in the end it allows you a greater spectrum of sound. Light reeds play easier, of course, but they come with limitations and a certain dynamic range. You would lose the quality of sound if you open up too much on a lighter reed.”

Andreas Ottensamer
© Lars Borges

Moving from Vienna to Berlin, I suggest Ottensamer would have noticed a change in orchestral sound qualities. “There are even differences within the orchestras from day to day depending on who is playing,” he laughs, “or where they are playing, or who is conducting, or what they had for lunch! So it's much more complex than we would like when we say we compare orchestras. Of course, there is a certain dynamic which makes up the core of each ensemble.

“Vienna is a lot about this floating together, very often allowing the Concertmaster to lead the way. It’s about producing a very homogenous sound, based on the traditional Viennese phrasing, whereas in Berlin it's a lot about energy, about impulses, about an overflow of personality in the most positive way. It's a lot of fun to play with the Berlin Phil.” This season in Berlin is the last with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm and it’s clear that the British conductor has had quite an impact on Ottensamer. “He's a genius. He has such a workload, yet always remains completely in control, always eager to aim at the highest outcome. He's always composed and in charge. His intellect is very obvious, the way he handles the score and the way he knows all the details is impressive.”

Away from his Berlin orchestral desk, Ottensamer’s career as a soloist is blooming, with a recording contract enabling to champion the works of lesser known composers, such as Carl and Johann Stamitz – one of the great clarinet dynasties of the past. He included concertos by both composers in his recent residency with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. We discuss how, in many ways, the Stamitz concertos are the “missing link” between the Baroque and the Classical eras. “This was such an important time for the development of the clarinet; it was basically where this instrument got its platform,” Ottensamer explains enthusiastically. “When you take a first look at these scores, they seem to be quite ordinary – and maybe even boring – but you have to look at them through the eyes of the people who were playing in those times in terms of style and how you would play them. At least 50% of the work is on your shoulders and there is great freedom to embellish and ornament the solo lines. Stamitz is the furthest back we can go in our repertoire so it was my challenge to give this music a platform. Johann’s is a beautiful concerto, very gallant. When you hit that spot with an orchestra that is comfortable in the genre, then it has an amazing dynamic to it which makes it a lot of fun to play.”

Andreas Ottensamer
© Katja Ruge | Decca

This leads me to ask Ottensamer if he’d ever dabble with playing on period instruments, but it draws a firm response. “There are people who do that amazingly well, but the thing that holds me back a bit is that clarinets are very different from stringed instruments, which were fully developed by this time. Playing a period violin is more about sound and style more than the development of the instrument. However, on the clarinet if you go back two hundred years you suddenly have fewer note holes and far fewer keys – you cannot play half the notes correctly and you have to find different fingerings which also affects the intonation! Playing on a period clarinet is much more about the quality of the instrument, so I just try to play on my modern clarinet with a big awareness of the period style and the sound and the gesture and the articulation I want to achieve.”

Ottensamer is, however, a convert to his newly acquired basset clarinet. “I’ve played the Mozart concerto on it already,” he explains. “I’m still adapting a few things and it’s a whole different world. I’ve also played the Clarinet Quintet and it’s amazing the effect that those two and a half extra notes can have!”

The Mozart concerto is very special to all clarinettists, but what would be the one work Ottensamer would take with him to that mythical desert island? “The beauty of music – and it’s the same with food – is which one would you want to live with for the rest of your life? I would probably not take any – or just take bread and butter in the case of food. The diversity of music is the beauty of it, especially with the clarinet where we’re so blessed with having a varied repertoire.” After a pause, however, he adds, “But a piece that has had a huge impact on me and has always been on my mind and in my heart is the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.” Not a bad masterpiece to live with for the rest of your days.


Click here to see Andreas Ottensamer's upcoming concerts.