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5 stars review in Fanfare (6)

September 10, 2023

Colin Clarke

5 stars
SOLO ALONE AND MORE • Jonas Frølund (cl1, basset cl2, bs cl3, perc4) • OUR 6.220681 (73:40)
NIELSEN 1Clarinet Concerto: Cadenza. STRAVINSKY 13 Pieces for Clarinet Solo. SØRENSEN 1Lontanamente. METTE NIELSEN 2Alone. MESSIAEN 1Quatuor pour la fin du temps: Abîme des oiseaux. GUNNAR BERG 1Pour Clarinette seule I. RUDERS 1Tattoo for One. WAGNER 3Tristan und Isolde: Act III clarinet solo. STEEN-ANDERSEN 3, 4De profundis (version for bass clarinet)
This is one of the most interesting portrait albums of recent years. The young clarinetist Jonas Frølund is making a huge name for himself, with a series of performances of the Mozart Concerto ensuring that audiences (and record companies) take notice. All of the pieces, with one exception, are from the last hundred years, that exception being the excerpt from Wagner’s seminal Tristan. There is also a sense of exploration of the various clarinet types, from basset and bass clarinet to the more familiar B flat and A clarinets. Jonas Frølund is currently principal clarinet of the Danish Chamber Orchestra. It was a performance of Mozart’s Concerto with the Danish Chamber Orchestra that propelled Frølund to fame, a performance that was featured on BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert. The pieces by Sørensen, Mette Nielsen, and Gunnar Berg are all world premieres.
The recital begins daringly with a cadenza from Nielsen’s Concerto. Frølund’s mastery of his instrument is immediately apparent; he also brings the cadenza to life with maximal dynamic contrasts and the ability to project the music through silence. Control is all here, and it is masterly.
The first of the Stravinsky pieces for solo clarinet is positively conspiratorial in tone; Frølund couples this with a sense of curiosity, as if he is as intrigued as the listener as to where the melodic line will go next. (And, a tiny but crucial point: The way Frølund shapes the very last note, allowing it to fade into infinity, is a glorious example of his control.) The second piece is more active, and Frølund gives a marvelous sense of projecting melodic shapes in space, maintaining the gestural heart of the piece while not allowing too much disconnection between phrases. The third piece dances spikily, and entertainingly. Frølund’s understanding of Stravinsky’s vernacular is total.
It is wonderful to see some Bent Sørensen here, the world premiere recording of his Lontanamente (subtitled, “Fragments of a Waltz”). Few clarinetists, surely, can control their instrument at such low dynamic levels, and yet that is exactly what Frølund does, to create a whispered yet lyrical landscape. The booklet notes rightly describe this piece as “variations-on-their-way-towards-a-theme” and that is exactly right; and Frølund projects that sense of onward movement and revelation perfectly.
We move to basset clarinet for Mette Nielsen’s Alone, a piece written in 2021 specifically for Frølund. This is a more extended piece, with a massive emotional and dynamic range, and containing a variety of ways with multiphonics, from beautiful to rasping to vocal drone against higher line. In this recording, Frølund sings an octave below what is written for the “duos”; a higher voice would obviously present this as written (presumably female, but could a counter-tenor work with this, I wonder?). This really is an astonishing piece; it has real emotional clout. This piece is actually part of a trilogy: There is a version called Together for clarinet and string quartet, and another version in which the clarinet part is replaced by another violin. All three can be heard (with Frølund as soloist where appropriate) on the Dacapo disc Frozen Moments, released in May 2023.
The Messiaen almost feels like core repertoire in this context. Eloquent and powerful, Frølund’s performance is one of the best (listen to how a sustained mid-high note repeatedly really does emerge out of silence and moves to the highest dynamic); and, importantly for an appraisal of the strength of the Mette Nielsen, Alone does not suffer in comparison.
Another world premiere is Gunnar Berg’s Pour Clarinette seul I (1957). The music of this particular Berg (1909–1989) is frequently labelled uncompromising, but this piece I for one find rather immediately appealing. Perhaps it is that Frølund detects and foregrounds a certain playfulness. Berg’s use of registral striation is particularly striking, and the piece includes flutter-tonguing, played with the utmost delicacy by Frølund (it is worth noting that “flutter tonguing” and “delicacy” are words that do not often go together).
Ever since I heard Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale, first on disc, then at English National Opera (in both of its stagings), this composer’s music has felt very potent, very important. Ruders always seems to know exactly what he wants to say and the most compact, concise ways to articulate that. His 1984 piece Tattoo for One, when heard in audio, only misses out the theatrical element: At one point, the clarinetist is asked to spin on his or her heels while sustaining a long note, for example. It begins with clarinet pulsings (which return as energy generators) before embarking on high-wire (and high-pitched) acrobatics. One “half-voiced” angular high passage is particularly interesting on a textural level. And what a way to end: on a screamingly high note that seems to exude elation.
The Wagner excerpt from the final act of Tristan is quite an insert into the program; it also acts as something of a wind-down after that Ruders. It is worth noting that Frølund’s rhythmic sense here is perfect, in that he allows the phrases and intervening silences to breathe but never loses the basic pulse. In one sense, this is a prelude to the final work, an impression emphasized by the equivalence of pitch-class between the last note of one and the first note of the other.
Percussion comes into play in De profundis by Simon Steen-Andersen (born 1976). This is the world premiere recording of the 2019 version for bass clarinet (the original was for soprano sax). The lower register of the bass clarinet certainly has a resonance that “speaks” in an almost vocal, grumbly way. A tolling bell that intersperses and, in its resonance, connects with the solo bass clarinet seems to have a dolorous nature. A drum beats against the clarinet; pianissississimo clarinet tones speak the sound of a triangle. Not for the first time on this recital, multiphonics emerge as a natural part of the musical argument, and certainly not as a mere effect. For me, it is the ritualistic aspect of this work that impresses most, with articulating percussion strikes of various hues allowing the work to take on a timeless aspect. Even breathing becomes part of the performer’s armory. The repeated low percussion at one point almost takes one to the specifically Japanese Noh theater (to my ears, at least, but perhaps that is fanciful). This time the drum increases the level of its repetitions before a bell calls for a time-out, taking center stage, its timbre melding, then, with that of the bass clarinet. It was a good decision to end with the Steen-Andersen, a work of major stature.
Such is Jonas Frølund’s level of musicality that it is only in retrospect that one notices the spectacular technical mastery at work here. The superb recording allows each and every one of the many, many nuances to come through. Recommended. Colin Clarke

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