A VERSATILE CLARINETIST AND HIS EXPERIMENTS
Martin Frost, Clarinet with jazz trio; Jerusalem String Quartet, Chan Centre, April 17 and 19, 2009
For their final two concerts at the Chan Centre this year, the Vancouver Recital Society featured Martin Frost, the young Swedish clarinetist (born in 1970) who has recently received great praise for his recordings of both Mozart and Nielsen clarinet concertos, and other chamber music recordings. He is widely recognized in Europe for championing the works of ultra-modern composers, participating in experimental genres involving jazz and multi-media.
The first concert was indeed an experimental piece of classical ‘fusion’ involving a set of short works -- all deriving from the root of J.S. Bach – played continuously. This was played in principle by a jazz trio (clarinet, piano and amplified cello) although musical interaction was also with images projected to a screen on stage and other pre-recorded sounds. So it was really more than a trio. It was interesting to see how Frost could interact with all these dimensions, with his instrument and with his personal form of mime and dance. One thing was immediately clear: that his clarinet tone is ravishingly full and smooth, and that he faces no technical obstacles with the instrument. His runs are so clean and exact, and his ability to control very soft notes is remarkable. What is not so clear is the power of the piece played; some effects were clearly striking, but much of it did not get beyond comfortable entertainment.
For the second concert, the clarinetist was joined by the now-celebrated Jerusalem Quartet, strongly received at the summer chamber music festival a few years ago and who later performed the complete cycle of Shostakovich quartets for us. On its own, the ensemble performed Haydn and Debussy quartets with great distinction. It is striking how the Jerusalem Quartet has matured in only three or four years. They have more refinement and discipline than before and an even stronger tonal blend; much of this can be attributed to the command of first violinist, Alexander Pavlovsky. Their tonal control in the slow movement of the Debussy, in particular, was little short of stunning.
The collaboration with Martin Frost in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet proved to be more controversial. This work is full of wonderful melancholy and nostalgia, but critics have always noted that softening the thrust and sinew of this work by very slow speeds and excessive sentimentality can be dangerous. Unfortunately, I think that is what happened in this ‘experiment’; the work simply becomes uniformly grey and gloomy. For all that, I was impressed with the thoughtful devices used by the performers to keep the work going at this slow pace even if Frost’s playing was often reticent to a fault. The clarinetist seemed to be so concerned with illuminating soft quiet passages that he never really used the pungent tone qualities often needed to penetrate the Brahmsian string sound. It was as if his quest for a smooth, cultivated expression blocked him from any rougher gesture. Fortunately, last year, we did see a performance that illuminated all the complex elements in this work: by Sabine Meyer and the Tokyo String Quartet.
Nonetheless, these interesting concerts left absolutely no doubt as to why Martin Frost’s immense skill and versatility has made him something of a ‘phenom’ already and why the Jerusalem Quartet must be ranked right at the top among young string quartets.
© Geoffrey Newman 2009