What a debt clarinettists owe to Anton Stadler and Richard Mühlfeld! Muses for Mozart and Brahms respectively, they were inspirations for some of the most glorious works written for the instrument. And there is no finer advocate today for the instrument than Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst. Joined by the Apollon Musagète Quartet, he presented the clarinet quintets of both Mozart and Brahms in a delightfully autumnal recital at Wigmore Hall, full of mellow fruitfulness.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Both works were written late in the lives of their composers, although Mozart – only 33 at the time – couldn’t have suspected as such when he composed his quintet in 1789. Mühlfeld’s playing coaxed Brahms out of retirement, composing his quintet just over a century later, but it shares certain stylistic qualities with Mozart’s. Both works begin with strings alone, the clarinet entering with an ascending arpeggio. In the slow movements, strings are muted. References to folk music are in each – the gypsy episode in Brahms’ Adagio possibly reflecting the Ländler, which is the second of the two Trio sections in Mozart’s third movement; and both quintets end with finales featuring a series of variations.

There was little stylistic difference between the performances of the two quintets here, with quite a Romantic approach to Mozart. Fröst’s playing was characterised by the care he takes over dynamics, often shading down to a pianissimo for repeats, especially in the breathtaking recapitulation in the Larghetto. There was also judicious ornamentation of some lines in the Menuet and a tasteful cadenza in the variation finale. Mozart integrates the five instruments beautifully – this is no showpiece for the wind soloist with string quartet backing; indeed, the first Trio of the third movement keeps the clarinet silent. However, there was no doubting here Fröst’s star quality, exaggerated by the dark, chestnut timbre of his clarinet against a string quartet which favours a lean, lithe sound.

Brahms wrote his autumnal quintet soon after he heard Mühlfeld playing in the Meiningen Orchestra; he produced the Clarinet Trio and Quintet just a few months later, composed at his summer retreat at Bad Ischl. Brahms adored the sound Mühlfeld produced, which seemingly had quite a feminine quality judging by the nicknames with which he christened his muse: “meine Primadonna”, “Fräulein Klarinette” or “the nightingale of the orchestra”. Fröst’s tone and timbre is probably quite different; here is a rich, rounded tone, muscular and warm. His playing in the Brahms was much more animated than in the Mozart, almost balletic in his movements (anyone who has seen Fröst perform Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales will know what an accomplished mover he is).

Apollon Musagète Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Apollon Musagète Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

Fröst brought drama to the rhapsodic episode in the second movement, his lower register full of sombre colours. It has been suggested that Brahms was inspired by his experience of hearing Hungarian gypsy bands, where the clarinet might take the role as leader. Certainly, the Apollon Musagète Quartet was happy to take the supporting role and Fröst brought an almost improvisatory quality to his playing. Occasionally, the string quartet seemed a little too content to take a back seat, the lower strings in particular sounding a shade undernourished.

There was plenty of life, however, in the Presto non assai section of the third movement, which scampered and scurried along before the variations of the finale, in which Fröst’s mischievous rubatos were a delight. When Brahms brings back the theme from the first movement Allegro, the circle is squared, ending with a forte chord which fades away. With such dramatic flair and exquisite dynamic control from Fröst, I doubt I’ll the hear the clarinet part played this well for some time. If autumn yields other such riches at Wigmore Hall, it’ll be an abundant harvest indeed.