New CD Shows Off Clarinet Mastery, With Double Twist

Swedish clarinetist Emil Jonason is set to win new admirers with an entertaining album of clarinet concertos.
(Photo by Andreas Sander)

Christian Lindberg: The Erratic Dreams of Mr. Grönstedt. Osvaldo Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Emil Jonason, clarinet. Vamlingbo Quartet (in the Golijov). Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg (in the Lindberg). BIS-2188. Total Time: 59:19.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — This album is a showcase for the virtuosity of Swedish clarinetist Emil Jonason, who displays phenomenal technique and an ability to exude excitement in everything he plays. The repertoire on this CD, two recent clarinet concertos, both of which have intriguing titles and interesting stories attached, is also worthy of note. I found both pieces compelling; the Golijov, written in 1994, is almost a contemporary classic — but as I listened, I began to wonder whether the composers were putting us on with their elaborate notes, which often promise more than they can deliver.

Golijov was inspired by kabbalist writings of Isaac the Blind.
(Sara Evans)
Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, as the composer explains, was inspired by the manuscript of “the great kabbalist rabbi of Provence (Isaac the Blind), in which he asserted that all things and events in the universe are the product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters.” But Golijov does not make it clear what this has to do with his piece. Next he tells us that the movements of the work “sound to me as if written in three of the different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our history.” Thus the first movement is said to be written in Aramaic, the second in Yiddish, and the third in Hebrew.

But what does this mean in terms of Golijov’s text-less musical language? Finally, the composer suggests that blindness has something to do with the piece. I can’t make much sense of any of these explanations. Fortunately, one can enjoy the music without them.

Golijov has been very successful in his attempt to incorporate some elements of klezmer music into traditional classical music. Klezmer originated in eastern Europe, particularly Romania and among the Jews. In the late 19th century the clarinet became prominent in klezmer bands and klezmer became one of the major influences in the development of jazz. Klezmer has its own melodic style and makes extensive use of an expressive vocal style with lots of simulated weeping and wailing as well as uptempo dances generating great excitement. Golijov’s piece is written as a concerto for the clarinet with string quartet. Although the strings have plenty to do, the clarinet is undoubtedly the star.

While this new recording is very good, and Jonason’s playing is amazing, I still prefer the first recording by Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet (EMI 5573562). The earlier recording quality is superior and the performers involved bring out much more of the textural complexity of the piece.

Composer, conductor, trombonist Christian Lindberg (Mats Bäcker)

Stellar trombonist and conductor Christian Lindberg is even more obtuse than Golijov in his program notes for The Erratic Dreams of Mr. Grönstedt, telling us that the music was inspired by one of his dreams, and that those dreams were “influenced by Grönstedt’s Cognac,” apparently a popular brand in Sweden. Is he, too, putting us on? Perhaps he is telling us he was drunk when he wrote the piece! Lindberg goes on to say that the music has no plot, that the titles of the movements – e.g. “Grönstedt Looks for Treasures on a Rubbish Heap” – “are not logical or even descriptive.” In short, if one is looking for insight into the construction or meaning of Lindberg’s clarinet concerto, the composer’s notes are practically useless.

Perhaps the best way to approach the concerto is as a vehicle for the artistry of Jonason. He appears to have a huge sound and a stunning command of the clarinet’s upper register. That said, I am not convinced that there is much substance to the music, and while the piece is basically tonal, memorable melodies are in short supply.

While fans of Jonason will enjoy a recording balance that strongly favors the young clarinetist, others might wonder why the orchestra seems to be kept in the background.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and