In concert – Martin Fröst & Roland Pöntinen at Wigmore Hall

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 December 2019

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert that was relatively short on music but extremely high on musicianship and virtuosity. Martin Fröst is one of the finest clarinettists at work today, and fellow-Swede Roland Pöntinen, with whom he has enjoyed a musical partnership for 25 years, is an extremely highly respected pianist either in a solo capacity or here as a chamber music ally. Both delighted their young Wigmore Hall audience – yes, that can be a thing at this venue’s concerts! – who were on their feet at the end.

The two gave us ‘French Beauties and Swedish Beasts’, a concert based on their first disc for BIS made 25 years ago. The beauties were first, in the shape of Debussy and Poulenc. The former’s Première rapsodie was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and later orchestrated in a form revealing its stylistic parallels with the composer’s ballet Jeux. There was a balletic feel to this interpretation too, Fröst’s languorous tone complemented by the stop-start rhythms of Pöntinen’s piano part. Initially the music was happy to indulge in its warm, lush surroundings but gradually it grew more agitated until Fröst’s final, bluesy solo.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, a late work, is dedicated to the composer Arthur Honegger and received its first performance in the hands of no less a duo than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. It is difficult to imagine a better account than here, with Fröst’s tone in the quieter and reflective passages simply sublime, layered with emotion. This was complemented by a sparky finale, where the music flew out of the gate like a horse let into an open field. The performers finished each other’s musical sentences in a performance of wit, charm and sensitivity.

The first of the ‘Swedish Beasts’ followed, a piece from Anders Hillborg written for the partnership before his breakthrough work, the Clarinet Concerto which Fröst recorded some seven years later. This was a piece of two extremes, flitting between reflective slow phrases and sharp retorts where the clarinet used the outer limits of its register. It was effective and a concentrated piece showing off Fröst’s technical prowess.

The second Swedish Beast was much more benign, but Roland Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream showed an affinity with the blues. Nocturnal New York seemed to be its focus, especially in the easily paced piano introduction and postlude, but when Fröst joined the music became more animated.

Prior to that the pianist (above) gave us two substantial chunks from Ravel’s Miroirs. His account of Une barque sur l’océan was highly pictorial, and his Alborada del gracioso had swagger, even if some of the initial phrases were clipped. Pöntinen has not yet recorded Ravel and it would be interesting to set alongside his many BIS recordings of earlier music.

The partnership finished with Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, a discovery from the composer’s Bayreuth period in his mid-twenties, before Wagner’s spell exerted itself on his music. This was an enjoyable piece, full of melodic grace in the flowing Andante before turning slightly darker for the passionate Allegro.

We had two superb encores from the duo, playing pieces Fröst has previously given with orchestra. BrahmsHungarian Dance no.1 in G minor surged forward passionately, while Göran Fröst, the clarinettist’s brother, contributed the hugely entertaining Klezmer Dance no.2, full of good tunes and musical banter between clarinet and piano. Given the technical expertise on show, the standing ovation that followed was inevitable.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)
Hillborg Tampere Raw (1991)
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
Pöntinen Mercury Dream (1994)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)

Encores
Brahms Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor ()
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

You can hear the album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts in its entirety on Spotify below. Alongside the items from this concert it includes the rather wonderful Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata:

Meanwhile Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto Peacock Tales’ written for Fröst, can be heard in its premiere recording here:

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