At Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York late Monday night, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst ended the second movement of Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata with a low, shadowy vibrato, paused but a few seconds, then burst into the fiery Allegro con fuoco movement like it was no sweat. His cheeks were, in fact, streaked with perspiration as he neared the end of his second concert of the day at the festival -- he had played Mozart's Clarinet Quintet earlier that evening with the Emerson String Quartet. But whether he was tired or not, the treasure of a soloist that is Martin Fröst left no chance for fatigue on the part of the listener, only a supreme ecstasy that you could taste in the air.
About an hour earlier, at 10 PM, Fröst walked onstage with violist Antoine Tamestit and pianist Shai Wosner for the concert's opener, Mozart's classic "Kegelstatt" Trio. The room was glazed in soft purple lighting, and audience members were seated around cocktail tables only feet from the stage in the Kaplan Penthouse, the festival's cozy setting for its popular A Little Night Music series of short late-night concerts.
That intimacy was only boosted by the performance of the "Kegelstatt" Trio and the chemistry it showed between Fröst and Tamestit. The duo had already collaborated on the piece on Fröst's excellent record from last year, Martin Fröst Plays Mozart, and they make great musical partners, complementing each other's tones and sensibilities. While Tamestit's playing is rich, robust, and full of drama, Fröst's playing is beautifully light, a tad airy, and gripping yet intimate.
With the equally impressive Wosner, the ensemble put together a fantastic performance of the piece, full of great dynamic contrast, precision, and tasteful variation in timing and mood, never letting the piece grow dull in repeats. A highlight for all of them was the Rondeaux: Allegretto movement, which saw Wosner execute the concerto-like runs with aplomb, Tamestit unleash vigorous triple-stops, and Fröst push out of his tendency for tenderness with explosive arpeggios out of the low register.
Remarkable vigor continued to bubble up in Debussy's Première Rhapsodie, which, like the Poulenc Sonata, Fröst performed from memory. He flew unfazed through the piece's roaring end, full of cascading arpeggios and weaving runs, an obstacle course for a performer's pinkies. Wosner was likewise stunning in the gentler sections, displaying a lovely touch that echoed the candlelight in the room. Fröst, however, generally a master of the soft and delicate, was slightly disappointing in these sections. His take on the dreamy main theme was filmy for long stretches, lacking vitality and variety. The soloist's tenderness was far more successful in the "Romanza" movement of the Poulenc Sonata. At the second appearance of the melancholy main melody, Fröst dropped to the very softest of whispers, still full of feeling and control, and the effect was jaw-dropping.
Fröst, Tamestit, and Wosner played one encore -- the serene yet repetitive third movement from Schumann’s (Fairy Tales) -- but the closer to the main program, the third movement of the Poulenc, was the one to remember. From the jump-out-of-bed opening, through the sassy Klezmer-y melodies and sudden pauses, all the way to the pounding ending in breakneck speed, it felt like the kind of ride you wanted to get back in line for and feel just one more time.
The Mostly Mozart Festival continues through August 23rd at Lincoln Center in New York. For tickets, head to the festival's website.
Fröst recorded Debussy's Première Rhapsodie and Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata on his 1994 album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts, which you can stream via Spotify. You can listen to his recording of the "Kegelstatt" Trio on 2013's Martin Fröst Plays Mozart via Naxos. For more of Fröst playing Mozart, you can check out 2003's Mozart: Clarinet Concerto / Clarinet Quintet in A Major here at Zumic. For Martin Fröst's latest music, news, and performance dates, head to his official website.