Architecturally, the Markus-Sittikus-Saal in Hohenems – one of the two venues of the annual Schubertiade – is considerably smaller and more traditional than its “sister” hall in nearby Schwarzenberg. And while set before a formal plot of manicured garden, the hall can only envy Schwarzenberg’s position above a stunning panorama of low alpine hills. Acoustically, however, the Sittikus-Saal is also superb, and its more modest size fosters a feeling of real intimacy. Further, Hohenems is hardly wanting for world class performances. Friday night’s chamber concert bore witness to that: a flawless synthesis of two instruments to the benefit of both.

Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen
© Schubertiade

Robert Schumann’s three Op.73 Fantasiestücke begin with a movement “Tender and with expression”, whose dreamy melody, perfectly paced, came close to mesmerising. Clarinettist Martin Fröst's animated playing is clearly his trademark. A tall, lean figure, Fröst wore an indigo blue and streamlined Nehru jacket that somehow helped make his long limbs a part of his musical vocabulary. He sometimes stood in a three-side chest pose of a body builder, bent in one knee, one shoulder higher than another, his fingers around the instrument rather than locked into one another. As unexpected as such physicality was, it was delightful.

In the third movement, “Quick and with fire”, Fröst took both sides of the argument, the one, as a loose and limber figure, the other, like a tin soldier standing at full attention, completely altering the mood. On the merits of its thunderous and ever accelerating tempi, the piece pushed both players to their limits at its exuberant ending. 

Franz Schubert’s “Six short pieces for solo piano”, D.780 followed. Pianist Roland Pöntinen, who, like Fröst, hails from Sweden, also enjoys an illustrious international career, but the two musicians are as different as night and day. Pöntinen sits quite heavily on the piano stool, and shows little in the way of infectious charisma. That said, after the last strike of the final piece, he took his hands off the keys like one would from a sizzling hot plate and the drama was striking. Further, the two Claude Debussy préludes he played in the second half of the programme included La sérénade interrompue with its tango-like interludes and the more familiar La cathédrale engloutie. The Debussy showed him much more physically connected; his body collapsed into the keys, and he emphasised the fleeting, Impressionistic character and colours of the scores, weighing the dance elements and lower registers beautifully. 

Five of Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Dances” (nos. 2-6) again featured the clarinet, and kept the same upbeat tenor in the hall. Despite the change of colours among the selected works, the two musicians’ precision was exemplary. The sheer madhouse of joviality that the Sixth imparted was enough to bring a wide grin to countless faces. And that appreciation was entirely sustained through the second of Johannes Brahms’ two clarinet sonatas, which dates from a period late in Brahms’ life when he was first exploring the rich tonal colours of the instrument. Standing front-and-centre like the Colossus of Rhodes with clarinet in hand, Fröst even occasionally opened his palm to the audience while playing, as if to say; “Now here’s this part of the story”. That narrative approach, in combination with compelling folk-like melodies, had overwhelming appeal. What’s more, the ending rendered us almost breathless. 

*****