Concert Review: Martin Fröst and Ronald Pöntinen: Concert

This review was published on: March 30th 2020

Martin Fröst (clarinet and Ronald Pöntinen (piano)

Monday 16th December 2019 - Wigmore Hall London 

Despite the theoretical equality of input between clarinet and piano, the audience for this programme was probably more interested in the clarinet performance, so the pianist was in danger of being eclipsed. To counter this, Pöntinen was given both a solo and a composition for the occasion.

Briefly put, his solo effort (Ravel’s Miroirs) was enjoyable, but to my ears somewhat clangourous and often smudgy in the passage work. But none of that impinged on the rest of his contribution. We were able to hear Fröst’s clarinet work in all its glory, and that is not an excessive word for it.

The remarkable Swede has an abundance of graces where clarinet playing is concerned. He seems unerringly musical and tasteful, always putting the musical message before mere virtuosity. Yet his virtuosity is both exceptional and extremely consistent. The tone is opulent when playing softly or at mezzopiano, transitioning into steely hardness when going louder. That timbre serves his purpose well, avoiding the ‘shouting’ effect that can afflict players when trying to go loud. The glittering tone projects easily.

But his projection was best when Fröst played quietly, since, in an admittedly favourable acoustic (certainly as regards my balcony seat) he filled the hall with dreamy ambience. He has the confidence to start many passages at niente level dynamics, in which the note emerges from nowhere to impinge on our consciousness. Yet this is used only where the musical message demands it.

The same can be said of his shallow, slow vibrato. It never intrudes, but serves only the music. He need not use it, but the fact that he does, with such taste, is an extra facet of his artistry.

Fröst’s physical movements might be controversial. I usually feel uncomfortable when players augment the composer’s content with visuals, or try to enhance emotion by gesticulating passionately, in the hope that viewers will think the sounds are conveying the passion. But Fröst’s choice of movements, though pronounced, did not detract, which might be explained by the fact that the playing is so complete without them. There was no sense of him relying on these actions to bolster an inadequate musical account. You could shut your eyes and still receive all the benefits. The visuals are just a little extra for our potential enjoyment.

The first half commenced with two familiar pieces: Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie and Poulenc’s Sonata. Both are a great test of the rapport between clarinettist and pianist. The clarinet must be able to convey the sense of reverie in the Premiere Rhapsodie without fearing being lost behind a wall of piano. The corners need to be turned in perfect accord, to avoid a sense that the dream is falling apart, but it must not appear to be too regimented that it seems to play safe and miss the magic. The two players seemed to achieve this without much outward effort, though I was struck by the extent to which Fröst (playing from memory) ensured that he was aware of what Pöntinen was doing, to achieve this result. The traditional concept of an accompanist carefully matching the solo instrument was often turned on its head in this recital, to considerable advantage. The dramatic clinches helped frame, and thus accentuate, this dreamy impression.

The same applied to the Poulenc. For me, it was the slow passages in the first two movements that were the most telling. The vanishing pps in the second movement’s main theme reminded you that this work is not merely a popular modern piece, but perhaps also a great piece. The hypnotic doucement monotone of the first movement was captured with aching reminiscence. The big tune in the third movement benefited from lush piano playing and burnished clarinet tone. The advocacy of these French works could not have been of a higher order.

Anders Hillborg’s Tampere Raw did not suffer by comparison. Beautifully played, and very persuasive as a work, one hopes it will regularly feature in recitals.

The second half was of lighter fare, allowing Fröst to show off his formidable technique, but always with the appropriate charm and verve. We were treated to two encores which demonstrated what is theoretically possible on a clarinet, though I fear that, for most of us, it will remain purely theoretical. This was an inspiring recital by one of the clarinet’s all-time greats.

Graham Elliott

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