Even if the joke is good, it’s all in the telling, as they say. Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß (“A Musical Joke”) is good, but it probably meant more to its contemporaries than it does to us today. It is Mozart’s satire of the incompetent composers, musicians and copyists of his time. It’s an inside joke, for all practical purposes. We still like listening to it; it’s whimsical, it puts a smile on our faces – but probably not every time. This evening, the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra’s telling of the farce worked, not only because it was played adeptly enough, but also because the orchestra peppered bits of acting into their performance. The violins threw angry looks at the horns when they played the “wrong notes”. And at one point, one of the violinists walked over to them and tapped her heels on the floor. It was fun.

Martin Fröst © Mats Bäcker
Martin Fröst
© Mats Bäcker

It is quite sad that we very seldom hear Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major in the way it was composed. Written for the composer’s friend Anton Stadler, the original work contains certain notes for a clarinet with an extended bass compass that cannot be played on today’s standardly tuned instrument. And thus, some crucial phrases are transcribed a full octave higher, which undeniably changes Mozart’s overall conception of sound. Lucky for us, Martin Fröst played a basset clarinet in A (remember that Mozart wrote both his Clarinet Concerto and his Clarinet Quintet in A, for this exact tuning). The basset clarinet can go down to the low C below the E (which is the limit on today’s soprano clarinet), allowing him to play Mozart’s original bass notes. The basset instrument, with its mellow sound, is also much more suited to the music’s soft, yearning themes.

The first movement was taken at a slightly hurried tempo. Radoslaw Szulc, as the principal violinist and conductor, led his squad towards a swift opening, sacrificing some of the intricacies in the score. Martin Fröst’s entrance slowed things a little bit, however, and the soloist made his calmer tempo permanent by turning towards the orchestra to help conduct the score whenever he wasn’t playing. Mr Fröst exhibited a superb performance throughout the extremely difficult Allegro, making use of all available techniques, including thriving circular breathing during the fast 16th-notes phrase in the lower register, as well as double-tonguing in the repeated notes.

The Adagio had moments of warmth as well as brilliance. After a particularly soft and touchingly played opening theme by both Mr Fröst and the orchestra, the second theme was reversely exposed in a vivid light, helped by the soloist’s strong blows as he jumped octaves, and ran staccato arpeggios. Martin Fröst’s articulations and embellishments were tasteful, and in just the right amount. But the most memorable moment came near the middle of the movement, where the violins, violas and flute carry on a very inventive harmonic progression. The orchestra managed to fully expose the counterpoint in the sentence – something that doesn’t happen often. The technical difficulties offered in the Rondo-Allegro are many: lots of clear staccato, huge arpeggios, as well as many repeated notes. They were handled with no trouble by the soloist while the orchestra played spiritedly bringing out the music’s cheerful and joyous air.

Martin Fröst was called on stage twice for encores. The first piece he played was his brother’s clarinet transcription of a traditional Swedish tune. Fast, full of breathing effects and oriental folk melodies, it was a perfect choice for an encore. The second was a slow, meditative version of Eden Ahbez’s popular tune “Nature Boy”.

Mahler actually never finished his transcription of Schubert’s String Quartet no. 14 in D minor for string orchestra, and the version that we hear today is based on the composer’s notes on the original score, edited by David Matthews. I tend to think the music best works in its original format. Crowding of strings inevitably takes something away from the raw tenacity of the theme – which happens to be death. The crucial sudden fortissimo to pianissimo transformations do not sound as harsh and effective. The Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra were in top form during this piece, however, with perfect synchronicity and a general tendency towards the agitated and passionate – even during the Andante con moto. This one-directional playing kept the focus squarely on the tragic which, I thought, was a very wise choice: too much variance would risk further alienation of the death theme. The orchestra’s deliriously fast depiction of the horse galloping in the coda ended the evening to loud applause.