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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Clarinet Concerto (1928) [23:59]
Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)

Clarinet Concerto (2005) [29:07]
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. May 2004, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland (Nielsen); June 2006, Ristinkirkko, Lahti (Aho)
BIS SACD 1463 [54:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, like Mozart’s, was written towards the end of the composer’s life, but while the latter’s work has an air of serenity about it Nielsen’s is much more restless and uncertain. The concerto attracted some pretty hostile criticism at the outset, indeed, eighty years later it’s still not the most forgiving or rewarding of works to listen to. According to Knud Ketting’s liner-notes, Nielsen – the ‘dodgy Dane’, to use Peterson-Berger’s phrase – didn’t exactly endear himself to the work’s early champions either.

The opening Allegretto un poco is as tough and uncompromising as anything I’ve heard from Nielsen. The Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst, who gave the UK premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto at this year’s Proms, is an astonishingly agile player and performer who easily tames Nielsen’s unruly score. Occasionally he has to work hard to make himself heard over the orchestra’s martial outbursts, but the close, bright recording ensures he’s audible most of the time. Just sample that solo passage beginning at 4:10 and you’ll get a flavour of his dazzling technique.

There is a strong undertow in this concerto – witness the somewhat agitated dialogue that begins at 6:53 – but even Nielsen allows some moments of repose thereafter. Fröst is meltingly beautiful at the start of the second movement – marked Poco adagio – even if the very closeness of the microphones robs the music of any inherent warmth. But there’s no real comfort zone in this concerto and even here the snare drum disrupts any attempt at reflection.

This is a tough-minded, adversarial work: soloist and orchestra warring fiercely with each other. Only in the final movement is there any sense of reconciliation, with a flowing passage for clarinet and orchestra. The soloist’s trills suggest a lighter, more carefree mood and even the snare drum seems less menacing than before. The ever-reliable Lahti orchestra are worthy adversaries/accompanists but it’s the soloist who really excels in the extended cadenza-like passage beginning at 4:34. Fröst’s tone is secure and well projected throughout, his playing warm and rounded in the quieter passages.

No question this is a feisty performance of a landmark concerto. My only quibble is with the balance – not normally an issue where BIS are concerned – which is a mite too close for comfort. That said, one could argue this suits the work’s curmudgeonly character.

Peterson-Berger disliked the Nielsen for its ‘cackling, crowing, piping, moaning and groaning solo part’; one wonders what he would have made of Aho’s concerto which, although much less abrasive than the Nielsen, is just as virtuosic. As with his earlier concertos Aho made a point of familiarising himself with the solo instrument’s capabilities, so it’s no surprise the Tempestoso opens with some impossibly high blasts on the clarinet, voiced above a stabbing bass.

There is always a risk when a soloist is asked to play in extremis but Fröst produces some astonishing sounds at the top; just listen to the soaring solo that begins at 1:14, mimicked by the violins thereafter (reprised at 6:35), But it’s not just about the clarinettist, for Aho has provided some virtuoso material for the orchestra as well. Colour and rhythm dominate, as indeed they do in Fröst’s lovely playing from 2:37 onwards. This is gorgeous music, superbly caught in the ever-reliable acoustic of Lahti’s Ristinkirkko.

After such a tumultuous start the Cadenza, Tranquillo proves to be just as athletic, albeit at the lower, less exposed, end of the clarinet’s range. Fröst’s trills are very well articulated, maintaining purity throughout. This continues into the start of the third movement – Vivace, con brio – which, as always with Aho, segues perfectly with the end of the preceding movement.

The composer is in expansive mode in this movement, offering a range of bold sonorities and rhythmic flourishes – sample the section beginning at 3:56, which grows into a powerful, pounding passage for full orchestra. Anyone who knows Aho’s Twelfth Symphony will recognise this music is mixed from the same palette. And what to make of the soloist’s witty ‘dying falls’ at 6:13, just before we slip into the following movement?

The Adagio, mesto shows the composer at his most lucid and transparent, the clarinet melody rising above the hushed accompaniment. Is there something of the autumnal radiance of Mozart’s K.622 here? Quite possibly this is some of the loveliest clarinet writing you’ll ever hear, especially from 5:29 onwards and into the concluding Epilogo, misterioso. As always Vänskä and his Lahti forces provide luminous support throughout.

Fröst shines again in this final movement – listen to the birdlike sounds he produces from 4:22 onwards. Essentially, though, this music majors on inwardness, the final pages as seductive as anything Aho has written. Of course the Vänskä/Lahti partnership – recently ended – is the bedrock on which the entire BIS/Aho cycle has been built, and one can only hope they figure as prominently in future releases from this label.

As enduring as the Nielsen concerto undoubtedly is, the Aho could be a keeper, too. The latter’s sound-world is chockful of delight, and when the musical and recording standards are this high the results are simply glorious.

Dan Morgan

You may also be interested in Dan Morgan's survey of Aho's orchestral music


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