The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra continues to attract rising star soloists to collaborate with, and on this occasion we were treated to the first New Zealand performances of clarinet Wunderkind Andreas Ottensamer. First, however, came a yearningly beautiful rendition of Copland's Quiet City. Originally part of the incidental music to a play by Irwin Shaw and scored for an intriguing combo of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and piano, it was reworked by Copland as a dialogue between cor anglais and trumpet soloists over a backdrop of string orchestra. Orchestra members Martin Lee and Huw Dann took these roles on this occasion, with Lee positioned on stage and Dann up in the circle seats at the rear of the Auckland Town Hall, a neat way of getting the audience to experience the dialogue between the two instruments. Lee's serene cor anglais sounded fully secure in this very exposed part with lovely wistful phrasing. Dann's angelic trumpet playing was similarly in tone and phrase if not without a couple of little glitches. The accompanying string sound was warm and full but pared down for a particularly soft, nocturne-like opening – overall, a delightful rendering.

Andreas Ottensamer © Katja Ruge | Decca
Andreas Ottensamer
© Katja Ruge | Decca

There couldn't be a much greater contrast than between the reflective Copland and the sudden bracing attacks from the orchestra at the beginning of Weber's Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor. The cellos swung into the opening melody with great gusto, with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto imparting an exciting sense of Sturm und Drang into the music. Composed in 1811 for clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann, this concerto is highly theatrical in nature and luckily it had an equally theatrical interpreter in Ottensamer. Born into a family with quite a pedigree (his father and elder brother both principal clarinettists in Vienna), Ottensamer had the full measure of all technical demands required for this showpiece.

The first movement demonstrated often unbelievable virtuosity as the clarinet wound its way through ever more intricate elaborations, with fast triplets and chromatic scales effortlessly sprinkled throughout. He also showed a similarly adroit command of dynamic contrast, alternately sending the sound soaring over the orchestra and scaling it down for more intimate moments. He took on a much smoother and more rounded tone for the sweet, aria-like second movement, phrasing with an almost Bellini-like flexibility that made the melody seem as though it was being improvised. Weber's unusual use of a trio of horns in this movement made for some charming interplay. Finally, the rondo brought out even more exhilarating playing from soloist and orchestra, making the most of the buzzing melodic figures, ending with a coda in which Ottensamer's technical command was again simply out of this world.

Shostakovich allegedly declared his Symphony no. 5 in D minor to be "a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism" following his censure by the Soviet government after the première of the more dissonant and thorny Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Naturally, this means that the music of this symphony is less knotty and more accessible than his earlier works in the genre. This performance found both orchestra and conductor fully engaged, with the opening of the initial canon figure almost scarily intense. Prieto showed great command over this movement's more disparate elements with no glaring gear-changes, mainly because he kept the tension so tight throughout. He emphasised the Mahlerian nature even more than most in the second movement Scherzo, raucous horns dancing through almost a gaudy Ländler.

The beautiful slow movement had the required pathos that evidently brought members of the première audience to tears back in 1937, though I've heard other performances that have wrung more angst from it. Individual members of the wind section distinguished themselves in this movement, with particularly mellifluous solos from the principal flute and oboe players. After this sorrowful third movement, the audience was jolted back to a more violent soundworld with the outset of the finale. The sheer ferocity of much of this movement (as though hurtling towards some unpleasant conclusion) was such the sudden change to major key was even more disorienting than usual. In Solomon Volkov's conception of the work in his controversial Testimony, the abrupt change to triumphal major-key here is "forced rejoicing," a concession to the Soviet regime that was intended to be subversive. Certainly, the disparity between this and what came before made it feel clear that Shostakovich's heart was not in it, a deeply unsettling end to an unsettling work.