it my imagination, or have clarinet virtuosi been cropping up
like weeds? In LP days, you'd have the occasional "step-out"
by an orchestral principal - Gervase de Peyer in London, Karl
Leister in Berlin, the incredible Stanley Drucker in New York
- for a featured moment in the Weber concertos, the Mozart,
perhaps the Nielsen. In the 1970s, Richard Stoltzman attempted
to assume a James Galway role among clarinetists, not only playing
his own instrument's repertoire, but annexing that of its woodwind
neighbors in transcription. But the digital era has been graced
by a profusion of first class players, many of whom have, in
the bargain, explored the byways of the repertoire: works by
Krommer, Spohr, Crusell.
Martin Fröst stands well enough in this ever-expanding company. His
playing here is marked less by any particular interpretive or
expressive individuality than by sheer digital dexterity, which
he sometimes just can't help showing off. Here, with brisk tempi
and forthright phrasing, the First Concerto - which too frequently
sounds like agreeable second-tier material - and the expanded
version of the Clarinet Quintet acquire a taut, "symphonic"
intensity, the chamber-sized forces notwithstanding. No matter
the pace, the playing remains shapely and musical. But in the
whirlwind finales it can all be a bit much: Fröst has no trouble
dispatching the Quintet's triplets at his chosen pace, but they're
apt to leave the listener a bit breathless. The Quintet, by
the way, works nicely in this string-orchestra format, save
that its four-movement structure, standard for chamber music,
inevitably seems out of kilter in the world of the three-movement
Back in the studio a few months later, Fröst gives the musical lines
of the Second Concerto more breathing room at more conventional
tempi, though he still can't resist putting the pedal to the
metal at the end of the first movement. He projects the initial
sustained phrases of the slow movement in a "subtone,"
or gently touched pianissimo, an option he left more
or less untouched in the earlier recordings, but which seems
- rather like some of Montserrat Caballé's pianissimi
- to function as an isolated effect, without being connected
to the rest of the dynamic spectrum. Still, this movement -
and the performance as a whole - make a strong, positive impression.
It turns out that our artists have, as the song goes, "saved the
best for last": this is, unexpectedly, the best performance
of the Concertino I've ever heard. Fröst begins the first
sustained note of the opening phrase in his subtone -- but then
he slowly, gradually unfolds it through successive notes into
a full, expansive tone. The resulting palette of timbres and
dynamics enriches his playing, in a performance that everywhere
balances attention to detail with spontaneity - a satisfying
nine-minute condensation of the standard three-movement concerto
Kantorow is an active, responsive collaborator, and Bis's engineering,
even heard in simple frontal stereo, is predictably excellent.
Some listeners will prefer Sabine Meyer's supple, more consistently
nuanced playing in her EMI program, which duplicates this one
though, obviously, using someone else's expansion of the Quintet.
Still, this is recommendable for Fröst's outstanding Concertino,
and for his energetic take on the other works.
Stephen Francis Vasta