“French Beauties and Swedish Beasts” was the title given to this Wigmore Hall recital by Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen, including classic clarinet repertoire by Debussy, Poulenc and Chausson interspersed with Swedish works composed especially for him. But it was also a trip down memory lane, for this was also the title given to the Swedish clarinettist’s debut solo album, recorded in Malmö back in 1994. A quarter of a century on, Fröst retains his Peter Pan boyish looks, his phenomenal tone and his delight in dare-devil risk-taking.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

Debussy’s Prèmiere Rhapsodie had humble beginnings, written as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, a “solo de concours” in all but title and it contains real challenges. Its dreamy opening evokes something of the languorous mood of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, the clarinet awakening from a reverie and quickly turning to mischief. Fröst’s velvet tone, plush even when whispered, was immediately established, and the range of his dynamic contrasts was truly astonishing. Slinky hips and lightning pivots are part of his performance choreography – Nijinsky’s faun reborn.

Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata exploded out of the blocks, Fröst responding to the work’s quicksilver changes of character which very much reflect the two sides to the composer’s personality. The critic Claude Rostande once described Poulenc as “moitié moine, moitié voyou” (half-monk, half-rascal) and the clarinet has to switch from ghostly piety to scornful impudence in the twinkling of an eye. Fröst caught the bittersweet melancholy of the second movement Romanza acutely, while the Allegro con fuoco finale rattled along at electrifying speed, Pöntinen clinging onto Fröst’s coattails.

The pair of Swedish works offered plenty of contrast, with Anders Hillborg’s Tampere Row giving a contemporary bite to the French fare. In hindsight, it sounds like a dry run for his later – and hugely popular – Peacock Tales, containing fiendish rhythmic challenges and high wire acrobatics for the clarinet, which Fröst hurdled with ease. Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream is less demanding, smoky, late-night jazz noodling which is amiable enough, but goes nowhere.

Pöntinen enjoyed his own spell in the solo spotlight, playing a pair of pieces from Ravel’s Miroirs. Une barque sur l’ocean came off best, rippling waves glinting in the sunlight, although with some brittleness in the Steinway’s upper register. The Alborada del gracioso was heavy-handed and rhythmically unstable at times, although Ravel’s guitar strumming effects were evoked well.

We returned to France for the finale, Chausson’s Andante and Allegro performed by Fröst as charming operatic air, followed by a cabaletta full of finger-crunching fireworks. Earthy Brahms and klezmer encores raised the roof on a satisfying recital.

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