“Diamonds,” as Marilyn Monroe sang in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “are a girl’s best friend.” But which type does she favour – highly polished or rough cut? Both varieties were on display in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s jewellery cabinet last night, which put the spotlight firmly on the German Romantics. Under the clinical eye of Vladimir Jurowski, it essayed staple works by Wagner and Brahms and a concerto by the early Romantic composer who influenced them both, Carl Maria von Weber.

Andreas Ottensamer © Lars Borges
Andreas Ottensamer
© Lars Borges

The polish came courtesy of Andreas Ottensamer, soloist in Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor. While Mozart was inspired to write his great clarinet works for Anton Stadler, his cousin by marriage Weber had his own muse – Heinrich Baermann. It was Baermann’s mellow tone which drew praise from composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, who eulogised about “that sweet world of magic tones of every grade that stream from your wooden instrument”. There’s no doubting Ottensamer’s honeyed tone, a buffed, beautiful sound with a satin sheen, admirably unforced. But there was a curious lack of engagement between soloist and orchestra as – feet firmly planted, eyes closed – Ottensamer sailed on suavely through his LPO debut.

Considering the turbulent orchestral opening, there was scant sense of pained sorrow – Weber marks the clarinet’s opening solo con duolo – just silky smooth tone and rock solid technique. Only in the Adagio ma non troppo, an operatic aria without words which evokes the misty atmosphere of Weber’s Der Freischütz, did Ottensamer plumb emotional depths, conjuring a gorgeous veiled tone on the pianissimo reprise of the main theme. Sadly, by then the LPO horns had scuppered the entire mood, flaws marring the moonlit central section. The Rondo finale rattled along, fleet-footed but humourless. Rather than an encore, Ottensamer then played the Andante by Alice Mary Smith. Drawn from her Clarinet Sonata (1873) it is an undemanding piece, charming but cheap paste heard alongside Weber’s gem.

Vladimir Jurowski © Simon Jay Price
Vladimir Jurowski
© Simon Jay Price

Jurowski’s Wagner was most enjoyable. The Overture to Tannhäuser was given the warmest possible start, the middle voices of clarinets, horns and bassoons blending snugly, cushioned by violas and cellos in the Pilgrims’ Chorus theme. With the LPO trombones on thrilling form, their chorale scything through the pealing strings, Jurowski was in his element, taut baton flicks maintaining the excitement.

The rough cut came via Brahms’ Second Symphony. Composed during his summer holiday at Pörtschach am Wörthersee, it is a work full of happiness and pastoral joy, although that didn’t stop Brahms teasing his publisher, Simrock, by promising him a work “so melancholy that you won’t be able to bear it”! Here, the third movement Allegretto grazioso came off best, jocular woodwinds engaging in a country dance, but for much of the symphony they struggled to be heard, pitted against 66 determined string players who flooded the platform. They produced a big Rolls Royce sound and Jurowski, pedal to the floor, drove them hard and fast. The results were bracing, an invigorating tour of the Austrian countryside which closed in buoyant fashion. But despite the diamond-hard brilliance, there’s something amiss when Brahms’ sunniest symphony wears such a determined scowl.

***11