More Mozart Unwrapped: Mozart and the Clarinet

Mozart Unwrapped: Mozart and the Clarinet. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Martin Fröst (clarinet), Kenneth Sillito (director). King’s Place, London.13.4.2011 (KC)

Symphony 29 in A K201
Clarinet Quintet in A K581
Symphony 17 in G K129
Clarinet Concerto in A K622
G. Fröst (arr.) Be Happy

This was a splendid occasion – the meeting of one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras, founded just over 50 years ago, and what must be the world’s outstanding virtuoso clarinetist, born just over 40 years ago.

We had two early symphonies. No. 17 is one of eight, written in 1772 when Mozart was 16, the year in which Hieronymous Collaredo, later to prove so troublesome to Mozart, became Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. No. 29 is one of two, written a couple of years later. Both were written for a chamber orchestra comprising strings, oboes and horns.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields habitually plays without a conductor. Instead, Kenneth Sillito, first violin, directs proceedings. This is a long standing arrangement, tried and tested. During the clarinet concerto, Martin Fröst combined the alternating roles of soloist and conductor, much as Mozart did himself when conducting his piano concertos from the keyboard. Very tall and effortlessly lithe (straight from the gym?), he swooped down every now and then to the level of the sitting string players, directing as much by eye-contact as by hand-gesturing beat.

Symphony No. 29 began a little too mellifluously, somewhat self-consciously so. The programme note refers to a ‘poetic’ opening. Nevertheless, eighteenth-century poetry has a crisper edge to it than poetry from the following century. The performance of No. 29 anticipated nineteenth-century softness a little too readily – but attractively, even so. No. 17 was a young man’s delight, with ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms in the opening movement, a brief bravura fugato during the lyrical andante that followed and a hunting-style jig to conclude. What a pleasure to hear The Academy of St Martin in the Fields on its home ground!

Martin Fröst is a wonder, too. It is a rare treat to hear these two great works for clarinet in one concert. This constitutes a celebration of the instrument (in tonight’s case, actually the basset-clarinet, for which both works were originally written). Fröst left us in no doubt that he is supreme master of the instrument. He has, I suspect, no peer. The athletic dynamism of his playing enables him to perpetuate an onward-pressing vitality with an ever-youthful lightness of touch. He moves easily from one musical obligation to another – from patient silence to taking centre stage to discreetly accompanying his colleagues so that his presence is heard but not obtrusive. His breath control is amazing – he unrolls great long, lyrical phrases with utmost ease and smoothness of display. There is no sense of strain or of his performance being subject to the physical demands of breath control. He flicks off scales and arpeggios as if they were delicate froth. His pianissimo is an amazing delight – amazing because that degree of softness requires such finesse in the performer. The basset-clarinet is a lovely, exciting instrument. Its sounds are richer and mellower than those produced by the modern clarinet, dominating other players effortlessly. Its high notes pierce through orchestral texture but do not screech; its low notes have warm depth, amply resonant.

One gain from this concert – apart from the chance to hear Martin Fröst’s supreme, flamboyant artistry – was having the quintet and the concerto played on the one occasion. Listeners had an opportunity to identify Mozart’s skill. The quintet was intimate and co-operative, with the basset-clarinet as primus inter pares, predominant but unquestionably part of a group. The concerto, no less a collaborative affair, displayed the basset-clarinet as a virtuoso solo instrument that was given its head: – seizing opportunities for soaring flight and, from time to time, returning to roost.

There was an encore. The choice was brilliant – in several senses. The item, ‘Be Happy’, is a klezmer, arranged by Martin’s younger brother. We heard intoxicating vitality from a commanding virtuoso. It was a mayhem of liberated sound, sounding modern compared with Mozart’s C18 formality, yet ancient and timeless as well. This notable concert ended in a riot, enjoyed by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields as much as by Martin Fröst – and us .

Ken Carter