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Fanfare 4 Stars review

August 29, 2023

Huntley Dent

The impressive Danish clarinetist Jonas Frølund, who turned 27 this year, arrived on a scene rich in talent: besides the famous Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, the first desk in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra is another dazzling talent, Johnny Teyssier. In his debut album Frølund shows every sign of keeping up with them, and he has already established a bustling career as an orchestra musician, soloist, festival participant, and chamber-music player. In the collection’s title, Solo Alone and More, the “and more” seems especially germane to his ambitions and musical reach.
Calling-card recitals of this kind center on “See what I can do,” and Frølund begins at the rhapsodic end of the spectrum with the inward-looking cadenza from Neilsen’s Clarinet Concerto, played without orchestra as he might in private rehearsal. The inclusion of this familiar music leavens the mood of an unaccompanied recital, and the cadenza feels, in fact, like a successful solo work replete with mood and atmosphere. The program is rounded out in a similar plaintive tone with an arrangement of the English horn solo (standing in for a shepherd’s pipe) from the Prelude to act III of Tristn und Isolde, which Frølund makes his own on the bass clarinet.
The thrust of the program is Danish new music, but we get two other international names, Stravinsky and Messiaen. There are so many miniatures by Stravinsky that keeping track is left to specialists. His Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo are occasional music written in 1919 for a friend and amateur clarinetist. Austerely titled I, II, and III, the pacing is slow, fast, and fast. The muted first piece takes advantage of the clarinet’s moodiness; the other two flicker with hints of Petrushka and the Octet.
The clarinet is given an extended 9-minute solo in the third movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, titled Abîme des oiseaux (The Abyss of the Birds). The first half is slow and pensive before the composer’s signature birdcalls enter. Extreme dynamic control is called for, from an almost inaudible pianissimo to a wailing outcry. To captivate the listener, the soloist must sound as humanly emotional as possible, which Frølund achieves admirably. The haunting echoes of a piece written under horrendous circumstances in wartime come through movingly.
The remainder of the program was all unknown music to me, as were the Danish composers, except for Poul Ruders. Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) has written Lontanamente (Fragments of a Waltz) as “a set of variations on their way towards a theme,” as the program notes put it. The piece is in six sections without a break, and the “remote” aspect described in the Italian title is reflected in echo passages. Chirps and slides, along with some very delicate tracery, lend variety to an engaging piece. The underlying pulse is almost but not quite a waltz.
More audaciously contemporary is Alone, by Mette Nielsen (b. 1985), which employs multiphonic techniques (having the soloist vocalize in the throat to produce a second note overlapping with the clarinet, although the specifics aren’t described). The instrument here is a mellow basset clarinet, and according to the booklet note, Alone “is fairly simply based on a spiral of notes.” The performer is allowed a good deal of expressive latitude, but the result for me was abrasive and aimless.
I’m afraid that Gunnar Berg’s Pour Clarinette seule I fared little better in my ears—it wasn’t experimental but seemed redolent of yesterday’s spiky avant-gardism. Ruders’s Tattoo for One from 1984 is perkily accessible but a little monotonous in its reliance on quick, skipping notes and long-held tones. The piece emits a mischievous air, especially when the performer is asked near the end to spin around twice on an extended high note. It will depend on individual listeners whether Ruders’s cleverness amounts to much, although the performer is probably quite entertained.
Simon Steen-Andersen (b. 1976) adds a small battery of percussion in De Profundis to create an “auto-duo.” The original version for soprano saxophone dates from 2000; Frølund premiered this version for bass clarinet in 2019. Only occasionally are a bell, triangle, and somewhat murkier thumping sounds prominent. Otherwise, De Profundis is by-the-numbers New Music in its random intervals and inexplicable events. At 15 minutes, the piece is more relentless than welcome.
For the most part, the new pieces on the program have limited appeal for general listeners, but Frølund’s talent is unmistakable, and I admire his dedication to fellow Danes among the composers. The most practical recourse is to stream or download the pieces that appeal to you. I found it hard to abide the florid, wildly overwritten program notes translated into English by a computer, I suppose, just learning the language.
Grumbles aside, as an auspicious debut, this release is warmly recommended. Huntley Dent

Four stars: A gifted young clarinetist makes an auspicious debut

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