This concert at the Tonhalle Maag featured Rolf Liebermann’s tremendously colourful Furioso for Large Orchestra, a work that, according to the composer marked, “the beginning of a paradisiacal era, and the creation of a new world” after the Second World War. To say it started off with a bang is an understatement. Anybody unprepared for the dynamics of this short orchestral work was almost kicked off his or her seat as it began. Even today, the Swiss composer’s thunderous piece is often seen as a metaphor for the furious pace of modern life, and its bombast and bulk at its beginning and end would work well for a high-speed Paramount Picture car chase. Yet its second movement, the Andante, features highly Romantic and harmonious melodies, as well as an elegiacal – and here sublimely played – flute solo.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Overall, the work is typical of the Liebermann genre that combines twelve-tone music with more traditional expressions. But among the acclaimed Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, it also set the stage for the whole evening; the players were a terrifically engaging bunch, often seen exchanging smiles and pleasant acknowledgements in a performance that was as inviting as a Volksfest, and none the least as colourful.

The great draw to the hall, undoubtedly, was Martin Fröst, Swedish master clarinettist who charmed us through the sublime passages of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major. While he has performed the work hundreds of times, he explains that he invariably always finds something new in it. Rolling his lips and loosening his jaw as he came on stage, dressed in an understated combination of slim trousers and Nehru jacket, Fröst took the first phrases of his score with a unique combination of acrobatic poses. He seemed to pose a question with one knee cocked in front of him, toe pointed, facing the left, then shift, the other knee forward, facing right. Playing a basset clarinet, the instrument for which Mozart composed the legendary piece, Fröst bowed and bent; his was as much a dancer’s stage as it was a musician’s. Occasionally, one could even “read” the score in the movement of his eyebrows.

In the Adagio, his fluttering fingerwork made almost an ethereal sound, and he again took up the third dimension, asking questions with the raised instrument, looking over his shoulder to include those playing behind him, or closing his eyes as if undergoing the same transformation he seemed to will in his audience. The orchestra supported the tension and depth of his playing like a swelling wave, reducing its volume as if its own voice were emerging from somewhere in the distance. This was sheer poetry and physical balance transformed into sound. And remarkably, no repeating passages were ever played quite alike; Fröst’s variety surprised us with a spectrum of colours from sublime to explosive.

In the Rondo finale, Oramo was clearly enjoying himself immensely, too. Smiles ran rampant. Before him was a huge body of musicians in perfect form, Fröst fully in sync with the grandiose expanse of their dynamics, his whole body used like a sequence of punctuation marks. On the clarinet’s very last note, Fröst jerked his head upright and stared straight ahead as if to shake us all back the here and now. Then in an encore, a spirited Klezmer piece arranged by his younger brother Göran, he shook us up all over again. Afterwards, all the heart strings viably pulled, the house simply roared with applause.

Following such a stellar performance could be risky business for some orchestras, but not this one. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major was also superbly performed. The first movement was a little too lugubrious, but its last measures were full of an infectious joy. At the start of the second movement, the conductor was as animated as to be dancing, even raising his baton with such momentum that it dropped half-way down behind his back. The symphony’s third movement included a dark reprise of the funeral march with its citations of the children’s song, Frères Jacques. And in a stormy finish, the orchestra engineered its triumph at highest possible volume, drawing us briefly into a dream landscape, and finishing in jubilation.

*****