Christian LINDBERG (b. 1958)
The Erratic Dreams of Mr Grönstedt, Concerto for clarinet
and orchestra (2011-3) [25:09]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b. 1960)
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for klezmer clarinet and string quartet (1994) [34:10]
Emil Jonason (clarinet)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
Vamlingbo Quartet (Andrej Power, Erik Arvinder (violins), Riikka Repo (viola), Erik Wahlgren (cello))
rec. Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, January 2016 (Lindberg); Musikaliska, Stockholm, July 2015 (Golijov)
BIS BIS-2188 SACD [59:57]
It looks like BIS have found another hip Swedish clarinettist to fill the gap created by Martin Fröst’s recent departure to Sony Classical. Step forward Emil Jonason (b. 1983), whose sinuous stylings feature in this imaginative programme of two contrasting dream-inspired concertante works. While Fröst’s shoes are doubtless big ones to fill, Mr Jonason appears to combine the brilliant extended techniques, the interest in recent repertoire, and indeed the rock star pizazz required to get the gig.
The present issue pairs Christian Lindberg’s recent concerto The Erratic Dreams of Mr Grönstedt, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1995) for klezmer clarinet and string quartet. This is already something of a classic and has been recorded several times, most famously in its debut appearance on a CD single by Kronos Quartet and David Krakauer (Nonesuch 79444-2).
If awards were given for titles, the polymath that is Christian Lindberg would surely sweep the board. A brief inspection of his catalogue throws up as yet unrecorded examples such as tuba concerto Panda in Love (apparently recorded but as yet unreleased); The Waves of Wollongong for nine trombones(!) and orchestra; and Mr Hammersmith in Heaven – a percussion concerto (this is brilliant - there is a filmed performance on YouTube) Titles that really prick one’s curiosity – a more tantalising prospect perhaps for inquisitive audiences (or performers) than say ‘Clarinet Concerto’ or ‘Piano Sonata’.
Of course, while Lindberg made his name as an extraordinary trombonist, he has in the last decade begun to establish himself as a conductor, most notably of the bleak but humane symphonies of Allan Pettersson – his superbly prepared and recorded accounts with the Norrköping SO are also on BIS and have convincingly illuminated these dense masterpieces.
In between he has somehow found time to compose at least fifty works. He has described his approach to the art thus:
“I do not write in any style whatsoever. I just listen to what my brain and soul tell me, and what I hear I simply put down on paper. To say anything more about my work would be pretentious nonsense.”
A refreshing stance, to be sure. Even so, I feel it would be quite wrong to see his compositions as some sort of anodyne antidote to, say, all that Pettersson. Lindberg is a wonderful orchestrator – with a real appreciation of both texture and colour. He can create memorable tunes and support them with distinctive orchestral timbres. His concertos – at least those I’ve heard – all seem to reveal an instinctive grasp of technique-stretching possibilities for the soloist - but these seldom involve empty virtuosity. There are dramatic – but still seamless- contrasts of dynamic and mood. To my ears this clarinet concerto is the best example from him I’ve heard to date – and that’s saying something! There are similarities with John Adams - another for whom titles matter.
The Mr Grönstedt of the title gave his name to a legendary Swedish brandy which ‘inspired’ the composer’s dreams. This piece consists of four short contrasting episodes, which are linked to a more extended final movement via an accompanied cadenza. The movements have titles but, in line with the essence of dreams, they don’t necessarily provide clues. The opening sunrise-like ‘Mirror of Saturn’ acts as a prelude – a soft spread chord heralding the emergence of a limpid, sleepy, clarinet; some nocturnal murmurings with washes of vibraphone. This leads into the next episode, sequentially random as dreams tend to be - ‘Mr Grönstedt Dresses for the Spring Ball’, with its Hollywood glitz and jagged strings (and somehow presaging the Klezmer clarinet, which dominates the Golijov work). There is some terrific orchestration here, suffused with hints of mariachi and even tango, while Jonason makes light of the challenging solo lines.
After a beautifully caught timpani-roll – the whole recording is stunning, with a truly vivid orchestral image on the SACD - we encounter ‘Lisa and the Magic Cape’, cascading high woodwinds against enigmatic string chorales, Jonason’s excited trilling piercing through the composer’s REM sleep perhaps. An artfully tentative clarinet solo against vibraphone lingers in the memory. Perhaps this is where those Adams comparisons are clearest. The movement ends with a truly hypnogogic clarinet (and more drowsy vibes) morphing into ‘Mr Grönstedt looks for treasures on a rubbish heap’, whereby the music livens up, the orchestra busy and agitated, the clarinet furiously questing. Lord knows what Mr G uncovers on the tip!
After an accompanied cadenza we cross the bridge into the concluding (and extended) ‘Dream of Venus’, in which Jonason really gets to let his hair down (or not, looking at the cover picture). Raucous multiphonics, manic trilling, Rhapsody-in-blue style exaggerated glissandi, repressed half-memories from other works. This is where I feel the work is at its most Freudian - the images blurring and merging. The music is beautifully laid out. A final brooding nocturnal interlude against brass heralds the skittering and decisive conclusion of a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing piece. The Norrköping Orchestra play magnificently as usual for Lindberg, whose stature as a composer is, I feel, rather less appreciated than it should be, muddied, perhaps by his reputation as ’the greatest trombonist that ever lived’ among some brass afficianados.
Which brings us to the Golijov, whereby Jonason is accompanied by the Vamlingbo Quartet, a Swedish group previously unfamiliar to me. This appears to be their debut recording. Golijov is Argentine by birth, Romanian in ancestry, has lived in Israel and the USA. Much of his oeuvre reflects his diverse background and is often deeply engaging because of it. One of his aims in ‘The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind’ is to reflect the polyglot background of Judaism in its three main movements (respectively doffing a cap to the Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew languages) by fusing the unhinged, improvisational spirit of Klezmer clarinet with the more formal parameters of a string quartet. It’s a noble idea but in my humble view it only fitfully succeeds, perhaps because of its extended length (here 34 minutes). True, there are some delicious Klezmer episodes, particularly in the ‘Yiddish’ movement, spicily played by Jonasson but the stop/start nature of the whole inhibits its overall impact, especially after hearing the Lindberg where I feel the dynamic contrasts are better integrated.
In the case of the Golijov I also feel two speakers work better than five - this is ultimately more intimate music-making than the Lindberg. While the recording certainly has presence, I feel that despite the very best efforts of Jonason and the Vamlingbo Quartet, the performance is a little earthbound compared to Krakauer and the Kronos, and especially polite when matched with my favourite recording, by Todd Palmer and the St Lawrence String Quartet on EMI (EMI Classics 57356-2 – nla) and coupled with other, perhaps better-focused, Golijov works).
That said, this disc provides a first-class introduction to the dazzling artistry of a brilliant clarinet talent, and provides further evidence of Christian Lindberg’s growing compositional mastery.