The Wiener Virtuosen, a flexible ensemble of select Wiener Philharmoniker players, exists in a multitude of formats. Their core groupings, string quartet and wind quintet, are regularly expanded to accommodate a variety of chamber literature. In the large hall of Vienna’s Musikverein they appeared on Sunday evening in one of their larger iterations, as a mid-sized chamber orchestra and offered a rich programme built around their ensemble.

Daniel Ottensamer
© Julia Stix

After their founding father, clarinettist Ernst Ottensamer, died in the summer of 2017, his sons, also solo clarinettists in the Wiener and Berliner Philharmoniker, assumed direction of the ensemble. Because of this emotional connection, rather than any clear musical one, it felt appropriate that they opened the evening with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. This late work, published posthumously, was initially conceived for basset clarinet, and contains numerous passages exploiting and stretching the natural range of the standard instrument. Daniel Ottensamer managed the many register shifts, leaps, runs and intricate passagework with grace, pearly tone and exquisite phrasing. The Virtuosen were very much in their element.

Excellent chamber orchestras are a true pleasure to behold, the absence of a conductor bringing focus and intention inwards. They are forced to breathe and move together in the interest of flawless ensemble, which the Virtuosen did to great effect. A highlight was the intimate, lyrical middle movement of the concerto. The reprise of the opening theme was restrained to a whisper by Ottensamer, and remained there until the orchestra took back the reins.

Thomas Hampson joined the ensemble for four of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings. All were written originally in versions for both orchestra and voice or piano and voice, and Hampson organised these arrangements for chamber ensemble. The opening number was the ironically wry Des Antonious von Padua Fischpredigt, which Mahler recycled for his “Resurrection” Symphony. The Lied takes an ironic poke at human and animal nature; a preacher, upon finding his pews empty, takes the Good Word to the fish. They listen attentively, then immediately return to their sinful, creature habits, much like their human counterparts. Hampson’s tempo was slow enough to raise concerns that the fish might get stuck in such slow-moving streams, but he picked things up energetically for the defiant following number, Lied des Verfolgten im Turm. The final two songs are likewise examples of Mahler’s interplay between symphony and song. Both make later appearances in the composer’s symphonies (the Fourth and Second, respectively), and represent polar stages of the human relationship to religion. Das himmlische Leben is a childlike depiction of heaven, full of dance and song while Urlicht seeks heavenly ascension out of a place of deep pain and distress. Hampson was musically and vocally at home in these settings, and while his tone and particularly text were often subsumed by rich instrumental textures, his understanding of the essential style and message of these Lieder is indisputable.

The second part of the evening was devoted to Antonín Dvořák. The ensemble took the stage sans soloists and offered a charming rendition of the Serenade for Strings in E major, a five-movement gem. Quintessentially Dvořák, the work is richly textured and lightly melancholy, but never dark. Full of melodic interest, dance motifs, enchanting harmonic movement and balanced scoring, it was delivered with hardly a misstep. From the solo cello work at the opening of the Moderato, through the flurry of trills that characterise the Scherzo and especially throughout the tunefully intimate Larghetto, the delivery was as measured and satisfying as the work itself.

The final set, Dvořák’s seven Zigeunermelodien, originally for piano and voice, was arranged at the behest of Hampson by composer Sylvie Bodorová. Arrangement is an art, and when done well offers new color and dimension to a composition. For the most part, Bodorová’s arrangements work nicely; the harp opening to Rings ist der Wald is an effective touch, and more raucous pieces generally profited from added heft. Interestingly however, the most universally popular work of the set, Als die alte Mutter, normally a shimmering study in simplicity was all edges and syncopations; an interesting, if not completely convincing redressing of the original. Hampson was vocally charming, if fatigued, by the end of the set, and the Virtuosen, with only a few unfortunate exceptions, did an outstanding job of accompanying him through a cycle wrought with sudden tempo shifts, agogic accents and accelerations. An encore, Mahler’s Rheinlegendchen – another Wunderhorn setting – sealed the evening with lilting charm.