Martin Fröst is an astonishing clarinettist. That won’t come as news to many readers. If Weathered, Anna Clyne’s concerto for him, doesn’t require Fröst to don a mask and dance as in Anders Hillborg’s flamboyant Peacock Tales, it still demands plenty of virtuosity. There are trills and tremolos, note-bending glissandos and sharply articulated repeated notes. And then he sings. While playing the clarinet. Premiered in Amsterdam in January, the concerto made its UK debut with the Philharmonia, conducted by another livewire, Pekka Kuusisto

Martin Fröst, Pekka Kuusisto and the Philharmonia
© Robert Piwko

Composed in the wake of the pandemic and also referencing the climate crisis, the title Weathered refers to ageing and decay. The concerto is in five movements, conjuring “a rusty bridge, a broken heart, a wind-worn castle, a majestic forest, and a warming planet”. Metal opens with bells clanging a forbidding church-like chant motif through which the clarinet trembles and squirms. The melodic line in Heart, often in the instrument’s chalumeau register, is one of desolation, set against glacial violins. 

Stone, a Scherzo-like central movement, is agile and fast-paced, ending in an improvised cadenza combining playing and singing. Wood contains a beautiful cantabile line for Fröst amid sepulchral orchestral colours that occasionally brought Respighi’s Roman Catacombs to mind. Snapped double basses and trumpet fanfares open Earth in dramatic fashion, but the chant of the concerto’s opening returns in a soft conclusion. 

Pekka Kuusisto, Martin Fröst, Anna Clyne and the Philharmonia
© Robert Piwko

Fröst, a nimble player, negotiated the taxing writing with aplomb. Yet by tailoring her writing to fit Fröst’s high wire abilities so snugly, Clyne may well deter other more mortal clarinettists from attempting her concerto. Only time will tell. 

The rest of Kuusisto’s programme was themed around Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The sinfonia to Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi was bracing, big band playing you’d rarely encounter in opera houses these days. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was given a fiery reading, lacerating trumpets cutting through the orchestral textures. Kuusisto’s conducting seems intuitive rather than crisply tidy; some climaxes could have been milked more, but his eye was on tension and drama. 

Pekka Kuusisto conducts the Philharmonia
© Robert Piwko

The extrovert side of this Finnish musician came to the fore in the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Kuusisto himself kicked things off, whistling the Jets’ coded signal before the Prologue. The Philharmonia found their groove straight away, driven by the dynamic percussion section that made numbers like the Rumble thrilling. Somewhere was engulfed in a warm embrace, while the Cha-cha was played with the bashful smile of first love. In the Mambo, Kuusisto turned to the audience, egging them on to provide the vocal shouts. Who could resist?