Among today’s major interpreters, there is probably no single one that gives the public a stronger impression of encountering a magician than the Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst. It's not just about his amazing technique, that seems to go beyond what any other human handling a single-reed wind instrument can achieve. It seems to be more about his willpower. With his clarinet moving like a magic wand, Fröst seems to hypnotize his audience, regardless of whether he is a soloist in one the few, well-known, concertos composed for clarinet, joining a chamber ensemble, or playing a new composition dedicated to him. If you read 19th-century eyewitnesses’ statements, only the incomparable Niccolò Paganini was perceived as being able to similarly charm his audience.

Martin Fröst and Henrik Måwe © Kevin Yataruba, courtesy of Lincoln Center
Martin Fröst and Henrik Måwe
© Kevin Yataruba, courtesy of Lincoln Center

New Yorkers’ most recent encounter with the mage, accompanied for this occasion by his compatriot, Henrik Måwe, took place in Alice Tully Hall as part of the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series and it was as thrilling and rewarding as any before.

Feeling that the extant clarinet repertoire is too small for his voracious appetite, Fröst has tried for years to extend it. The entire middle section of his recital was dedicated to a number of adaptations for the instrument. Béla Bartók wrote his Six Romanian Dances for Piano in 1915, arranging them for small orchestra two years later. They are the direct result of his exploratory work as a folklorist in Transylvania where he originally heard these melodies played by fiddlers or shepherds. Fröst and Måwe played four of the miniatures as adapted for clarinet and piano by Jonas Dominique. The the two musicians, in perfect concordance, without even regarding one another, brought forward the amazing wealth of tonal, dynamic and rhythmic nuances included in just few minutes of music such as the oriental sounds in Pe Loc/ In One Spot or the opposition between the rather static Brâul/ The Sash and the whirlwind in Mărunţel/ Little Steps.

Three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances that followed sounded rather tame and heavy by comparison, despite their own rubatos and overall rhythmic diversity. More interesting were the versions of the three Brahms' Lieder (adapted, as were the Hungarian Dances, by the evening’s soloists). Giving up the verses and transforming the opuses – Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Mädchenlied and Vergebliches Ständchen – in a sort of Lieder ohne Wrote (Songs Without Words), in the Mendelssohnian sense, Fröst and Måwe revealed the sheer power to communicate of the music itself. They seemed to claim, rather successfully, that one doesn’t need Christa Ludwig’s mezzo to lament “Wem soll ich’s klagen? / To whom shall I tell my sorrow?” (Mädchenlied); Fröst’s plangent legato was sufficient.

Even the first work on the program should have been a transcription – a modern transformation of three Vivaldi operatic arias into a clarinet “concerto” – but the piece was replaced at the last moment with the undeservedly rarely played Clarinet Sonata by Francis Poulenc. Like most of the composer’s output, the music is quite eclectic, which suits well Fröst’s easily adaptable, “chameleonic” style. There was a superb, calm pianissimo in the Romanza, fireworks in the first movement and clownish interjections in the Allegro con fuoco. The music was an excellent vehicle for displaying Fröst’s impeccable technique and the high level of integration between clarinet and piano. And then there was the “dance”. For those unaccustomed to it, a Fröst appearance on stage includes repeated gestures (turning sideways and bending a knee; holding the instrument on the right side, mouth down, as in a moment of shyness; standing, feet apart, like inspired by a drawing of Kokopelli, the Hopi deity) that seem to merge into a ritualistic, “shamanic” dance, meant to take his public to a different world.

Martin Fröst and Henrik Måwe © Kevin Yataruba, courtesy of Lincoln Center
Martin Fröst and Henrik Måwe
© Kevin Yataruba, courtesy of Lincoln Center

Obviously, the culminant point of the program was the final work, Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata no. 2 in E flat major, composed, similarly to its sister sonata, the clarinet trio and the clarinet quintet, under the spell of Brahms’ encounter, late in his career, with a new muse, clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Not that old muses were forgotten. The theme of the finale sounds as Schumannesque as any other. But, overall, the music seems closer to the 20th century, especially in the dramatic outbursts that show up after the initial, pensive clarinet melody and in the tense, Allegro appassionato, second movement. The collaboration between the two interpreters was faultless.

The encore, a series of improvisations on klezmer themes, was not only sparkling but a fitting closing parenthesis to the jazzy inflections at the beginning of Poulenc’s sonata.

*****