In Concert – Martin Fröst, Roland Pöntinen & Sébastien Dubé @ Wigmore Hall: Night Passages – A Musical Mosaic

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano), Sébastien Dubé (double bass)

Debussy Première rhapsodie (1909-10)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)
Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)
Night Passages – A musical mosaic (with arrangements by the performers)
Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in D minor Kk32
Chick Corea Children’s Song no.15 (1978)
Rameau Les Indes galantes: Air pour les Sauvages (1735-6)
Purcell Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes Z583: Music for a while (1692)
J.S. Bach Sinfonia no15 in B minor BWV801 (c1720)
Chick Corea Armando’s Rumba (1976)
Purcell Hornpipe in E minor Z685
Handel Menuet in G minor (1733)
Traditional Polska från Dorotea
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2 (2011)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 21 December 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

In 2019, Arcana was at the Wigmore Hall to see Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen give a concert of largely French music for clarinet and piano. Their encore hinted at an intriguing sequence of arrangements exploring connections between classical music and jazz. Three years on, that sequence has grown in stature, realised in recorded form as the Sony Classical album Night Passages, and given meaningful content by personal and world events.

Through lockdown, Fröst experienced intense bouts of Ménière’s disease, whose symptoms include unexpectedly severe bouts of vertigo and tinnitus. The clarinettist experienced one such bout while driving his car, which he thankfully negotiated without injury, but which bred a number of accompanying fever dreams. Expressed in the program notes, they lent a vivid written complement to the music.

Since 2019 the double bass of Sébastien Dubé has been added to the instrumental thinking, an essential musical component taking the arrangement style towards Jacques Loussier without ever resorting to parody. Unexpectedly, the group’s colourful arrangements did not always include the piano, allowing Fröst and Dubé the chance to explore the rewarding combination of clarinet and double bass through imaginative techniques and compelling improvisation.

The course of Night Passages led from a solemn sonata by Domenico Scarlatti to a Klezmer dance from Fröst’s brother Göran, by way of arrangements exploring the versatility of Baroque music. These were matched by jazz-inflected work from Chick Corea, with Armando’s Rumba presenting some vibrant syncopations, along with a celebration of the Swedish polska.

Frost’s artistry was almost beyond criticism, the clarinettist able to make even the most demanding technical passages appear nothing more than a walk in the park, airily improvising or running through sharply edged cadenzas. Dubé was no less impressive, and a remarkably wide range of colours issued from the double bass, whether bowed or plucked. His chemistry with Fröst was compelling, and the occasional use of vocals added to the mix. Roland Pöntinen also made the most of his chances to shine, providing the rhythmic verve to the dances but also a welcome, cleansing clarity which ran through the Baroque arrangements, tastefully and affectionately realised.

Prior to the interval we heard three short pieces by French composers for clarinet and piano. Debussy’s Première rhapsodie tells its story through a set of contrasting thoughts, initially set out in a humid atmosphere but becoming more outward facing as it gains in confidence. Fröst and Pöntinen had its many twists and turns instinctively under their fingers, finishing each other’s sentences as they did in the romantic, lyrical writing of Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, played with evident affection.

Yet it was Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and piano, completed in the year before his death, that made the most lasting impression. What a profound work this is, paying tribute to his friend and fellow composer Arthur Honegger. The slow movement holds the emotional centre of the work, with melancholy on occasion spilling over into outright sadness. Fröst’s quieter asides encouraged the audience to lean closer to the music, but these intimate thoughts were swept away by the exuberant finale, throwing caution to the winds. Fröst and Pöntinen played with great feeling throughout, typifying the approach of a concert that may not have been generous in length but which amply compensated through musical quality.

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