Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775 – 1838)
Clarinet Concertos

Media Review / Listening Diary 2017-05-05

2017-05-05 — Original posting

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Back in summer 1975, I visited my first girl friend (**), who introduced me to her home. She played me her (back then) favorite LP, and I immediately realized that the music moved her a lot. She let me take it along, and I listened to it for a while, then returned her the LP again. I have never forgotten about that music (no, not because this had been a romantic moment—really because I liked the music, found it interesting at the very least). In recent years I have been looking for a CD version of that recording, but was unable to find it—I think the recording never made it into the digital Age…

The soloist was the late Gervase de Payer (1926 – 2017), a prominent, excellent English clarinetist and conductor. The B-Side (see must have been a composition by Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990): the Clarinet Concerto from 1948, commissioned by Benny Goodman (1909 – 1966). I don’t remember much about that side, other than that the music was OK—it seemed less intriguing to me at that point. However, I remember reasonably well how that Crusell recording sounded.

(**) I lived with that friend 1976 – 1981; she just died two weeks ago; may she rest in peace!

An Early Glance at Crusell’s Music

This was an LP featuring the Clarinet Concerto No.2 in F minor, op.5, by Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775 – 1838). Crusell was a Swedish-Finnish clarinetist, composer and translator. Some Finns apparently take him for the most important Finnish composer prior to Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957). In any case, the second clarinet concerto is probably his signature work—dramatic, rebelling, and very virtuosic in the initial Allegro. The Andante pastorale is marvelously serene, melodic, with melancholic, longing sections: in my opinion, it is not too far in quality and invention from Mozart’s clarinet concerto. The third movement is both moody and playful, again very virtuosic, catchy. I really liked the music—even though I guessed that some of the melodies / features were probably “inherited” from other, contemporary classical composers.

Looking for CD recordings

At some point I realized that a proper CD release of Gervase de Payer is no longer available, so I started looking for alternatives. In 2012, I found Emma Johnson’s recording of all three of Crusell’s clarinet concertos, see below—and purchased it without much previewing: I hadn’t heard Emma Johnson playing till then, neither in concert, nor in recordings. The recording seemed OK; it didn’t quite have the “flavor” of de Payer’s recording, but it certainly wasn’t bad.

A few weeks ago, I ran into the newer recording by the Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst (see below)—and purchased it right away, without further checking: that artist has received rave reviews in radio shows, and if these were right, he must be one of today’s best clarinettists.

For information on the three concertos see the Wikipedia article on Bernhard Henrik Crusell.

Emma Johnson, 1991

Crusell: Clarinet Concertos — Emma Johnson, ECO; CD cover

Crusell: The Three Clarinet Concertos

Emma Johnson
Various orchestras & conductors

ASV digital CD DCA 784 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1986/89/91 / © 1991
Booklet: 4 pp. English

Crusell: Clarinet Concertos — Emma Watson, ECO; CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link

Emma Johnson was born in London 1966. She started her solo career early on, winning a BBC competition 1984, at age 18. The above CD is a collection of earlier recordings:

Martin Fröst, 2008

Crusell: Clarinet Concertos — Martin Fröst, Okko Kamu; CD cover

Crusell: The Three Clarinet Concertos

Martin Fröst
Okko Kamu, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

BIS-SACD-1723 (SACD stereo/5-surround / CD stereo); ℗ / © 2008
Booklet: 36 pp. en/se/de/fr

Crusell: Clarinet Concertos — Martin Fröst, Okko Kamu; CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link

The Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst was born 1970 — judging from radio reviews, he must be one of the top clarinettists today — see also below. Fröst now lives in Stockholm (for more information on the artist see his Wikipedia entry). In this recording, he is accompanied by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Okko Kamu (*1946), a Finnish conductor and violinist.


I’m not going to make a detailed comparison here — let me just give a list of the movements, and the respective timings for the two recordings:

  • Concerto No.1 in E♭ major, op.1
    1. Allegro
      Johnson: 10’46” — Fröst: 10’16”
    2. Adagio
      Johnson: 4’56” — Fröst: 3’38”
    3. Rondo: Allegretto
      Johnson: 7’27” — Fröst: 6’06”
  • Concerto No.2 in F minor, op.5
    1. Allegro
      Johnson: 13’13” — Fröst: 10’52”
    2. Andante pastorale
      Johnson: 5’57” — Fröst: 5’24”
    3. Rondo: Allegretto
      Johnson: 6’16” — Fröst: 5’52”
  • Concerto No.3 in B♭ major, op.11
    1. Allegro risoluto
      Johnson: 10’52” — Fröst: 10’02”
    2. Andante moderato
      Johnson: 6’41” — Fröst: 6’04”
    3. Alla Polacca
      Johnson: 7’50” — Fröst: 7’06”

Without exception, Martin Fröst’s interpretations are significantly faster than Emma Johnson’s. The biggest difference, though, in the first movement of the second concerto op.5, is not as substantial as the numbers suggest, as Emma Johnson plays a different cadenza.

Quick Summary Comparison

With both clarinettists, these are the first recordings in my collection with these artists. Furthermore, I have not looked into other recordings of these concertos, so the comparison is a bit “in the air”, at least in the case of Emma Johnson. Sadly, there aren’t many recordings of Crusell’s clarinet concertos on the market, definitely not many with all three of the concertos: a real pity, as this is such nice, even excellent music!

Emma Johnson

Definitely, Emma Johnson is an excellent clarinetist—but some of these recordings (especially op.5, probably also op.11) are to be regarded early in her career. Her playing features clean intonation and articulation, she is virtuosic, sure. As mentioned above, she prefers slightly moderate tempi—this may partly be “Zeitgeist“, i.e., the way these orchestras played 25 – 30 years ago, and maybe also the conductor’s preference. In comparison, her playing is a bit more “handsome”. If I were to compare it to someone else, I would not do that with Fröst, but with Sabine Meyer (*1959): the latter has a softer, more mellow tone, and a tendency towards more legato playing. Out of my stomach, I would certainly prefer Sabine Meyer over Emma Johnson.

After comparing Emma Johnson’s recording with Martin Fröst’s, my short verdict is: solid, robust, good, but not outstanding in relative terms. Rating: 3/5

Martin Fröst

Simply said: Martin Fröst plays in a different league altogether. Some brief notes:

  • his articulation is light, in line with the noticeably faster tempo; the orchestra follows suit, also with lighter articulation that the orchestras in Emma Johnson’s recordings.
  • His dynamic scope is much wider, especially towards the soft side;
  • along with the lighter articulation, his playing also appears more flexible and agile, more virtuosic;
  • the faster tempo makes it easier to maintain the flow;
  • the larger dynamic scope gives Fröst better means in the area of phrasing, again helping in maintaining the flow;
  • most importantly, Fröst is able to produce the most mellow, the softest, the most gentle tone that I have ever heard from any clarinetist: his instrument at times sounds more like a flute, or sometimes like an oboe, also in terms of agility, speed and response! There is, however, one thing you will not get from this artist: if you are a fan of a “boxy” and/or grainy clarinet tone—then you should look for a different artist!
  • His agility, both in dynamics, as well as in all shades of articulation (legato to staccato), the speed at which he can switch between tonal colors / qualities, his virtuosity overall are unmatched, as far as I can tell.
  • Fröst explores the scope of his instrument to a point where going any further would deteriorate the intonation.

Within this comparison, but definitely also in “absolute terms”, I could not resist giving Fröst’s interpretation the highest rating, pretty much throughout — and a strong recommendation. Rating: 5/5

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