Dancing To ‘Peacock Tales’
Among books that many of us try to avoid writing — and reading — one of the most familiar offenders is the novel with a crazy ending. Comes out of nowhere. Nothing to do with the story. Sometimes it’s a deluge of magical realism. Or a fortuitous cataclysm arrives to get the protagonist out of trouble. That’s the deus ex machina of ancient theatre, basically “God in a bucket,” swinging low over the stage to fix things and carry everybody home.
In a peculiar way, clarinetist Martin Fröst’s new album, Nordic Concertos from BIS Records may — and the may is important here — strike you as akin to those books. It’s been highlighted by New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music during the CD’s Album of the Week run. And you’ll find that Fröst’s selection of work starts in one universe and ends in quite another.
The reason I’m stressing the word may here, is that one of the most important things you can do with the writings of a critic is use them as a touchstone for consideration — and then make up your own mind. You can tell me I’m full of it and that the material on this album is perfection itself. That’s just fine. Many people want a critic to tell them what to think. The best critic, however, tells you only what he or she thinks, and sends you off to decide for yourself. That’s why God gave us comment sections.
The Swedish virtuoso Fröst in effect asks us here, “How do you feel about an album that draws mostly from the 20th and 21st centuries, only to plunge backward to 1830 at the end?”
My answer to the question? Well, I was really enjoying the newer music. Three challenging works by Anders Hillborg (composed in 1998), Vagn Holmboe (composed between 1940 and 1942), and Karin Renqvist (composed in 2002) make this album well worth your time and attention, no question whatever. But the sudden arrival of Bernhard henrik Crusell’s prim Introduction, Theme, and Variations on a Swedish Air (published in 1830) creates a sonic whiplash for me.
You may love this put-together of newer and older music, and if you do, that’s just fine, more power to you.
Fröst is something more than you get in an audio encounter, as a matter of fact.
He’s a choreographic musician, a player who loves to integrate movement into performances. And it’s not easy, even for him. If you’d like to know more about this unusual artist’s penchant for a dancing delivery of his music, have a look at this video in which you see him at work and hear him discussing how difficult it is to combine movement and musical performance — “like playing the piano with five hands,” he says at one point.
The inner dancer in this woodwinds master informs everything he touches. Even when not seeing him work, as in simply listening to this music, you can hear a kind of sprightly intelligence at work, a youthfulness that belies his 45 years and makes you eager to know what his feet were doing as he played these pieces.
At the very least, Fröst in any era or style, goes a long way to redeem the clarinet. Its nasal whine isn’t your favorite sound at the symphony, right? Mine either. Here, Fröst. yanks the rug out from under your expectations — except in Old World classical turns like the Crusell — and sets your mind dancing along with his own instinctual agility.
That’s not musical theater such as The Music Man and Fiddler on the You Know What but music theater, as championed by such auteurs as Martha Clarke and Anne Bogart, Lee Breuer and Robert Wilson.
Ironically, it’s what Fröst may well be doing here. Generally, what we term “music theater” is based in text and created in an amalgam of movement and music that treats the various elements as near-equals. Here, the first three pieces on the album feature the music, rather than a text. But throughout, you’re aware of a potential role for movement and light beyond anything you’d expect in concertos for clarinet.
One of our favorite composer-conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, directs the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the leading work, Hillborg’s Peacock Tales, which lulls you with a quiet, moody solo opening and then, at 3:33 into the 29-minute work, slams you with a frightening, screaming full-orchestral outburst. The piece is never the same. Even in soft, murmuring sections, the nervous dithering of a digital age laces the occasional operatic reference into something new and nourishing to the imagination. Wall-shaking organ, a sheen of brass that surfaces from darkness — you can sense the choreographic possibilities here. And the composer has said that several editions of the work, originally written for Fröst, exist. He has a suite of “formats,” if you will, in which to offer this ranging work with its masterful, major-chord conclusion.
The second work, Holmboe’s Concerto No. 3 for Clarinet and Orchestra (in two movements). is busier, maybe a bit gussy and bustling and times, but nevertheless still squarely in a contemporary idiom
And the third, Rehnqvist’s On a Distant Shore, is another piece written for Fröst. Its composer, Rehnqvist, understands the trope of the voyage out, I think. Her worlds are divided into five momements: The Dark, The Light, The Wild, The Singing, and The Call. Listen for something like ravishing sirens in The Singing and for a terrifying, uneven, shivering, bray from Fröst in the last few moments of The Call on this, the newest work on the album.
Look, it’s stately, upright, highly accomplished work. Proper. And it’s as prosaic as anything else from the era, suddenly reducing the clarinet to what it used to be and to what we always fear it might be: predictable.
There’s not a thing wrong with the Crusell. If you enjoy it, you’re hardly alone.
But I’ll always be happier when Fröst pushes the boudaries as he does in the rest of this release. You can tell me I’m wrong, absolutely. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here doing a little dancing of my own to the deep and daring difficulties of modern music that Martin Fröst puts so deftly on its feet for us.