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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F minor, Op. 73 (1811) [18:35]
Clarinet Quintet in B-flat major, Op. 34 (arr. Kantorow) (1815) [23:11]
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 74 (1811) [21:53]*
Clarinet Concertino in E-flat major, Op. 26 (1811) [9:06]*
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Jean-Jacques Kantorow
rec. Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland, April and *October 2005
BIS BISSACD1523 [74:09]


Is 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 concerto.

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 form. 

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



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