British Clarinet Concertos

Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Clarinet Concerto Op.80 (1902) [21:15]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra Op.31 (1948-9) [28:07]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Clarinet Concerto No.2 Op.115 (1974) [16:00]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. Blackheath Concert Halls, London, England, 5-6 January 2012 (Arnold; Finzi); Watford Colosseum, England, 4 April 2012 (Stanford)
CHANDOS CHAN10739 [65:45]
This disc brings together - uniquely - three of the very finest British Clarinet Concertos in marvellous performances caught in sumptuous Chandos sound. It’s a triumph for all concerned especially Michael Collins who not only plays quite brilliantly but directs the BBC Symphony Orchestra in works which are far from straightforward accompanying exercises. The result sounds effortless - certainly as a result of some top-notch musicianship and collaborative music-making.
Given the quality of the music recorded here it is not surprising that all of these works have received multiple accomplished recordings from numerous brilliant clarinettists it would be foolish to try select one as best of all. Suffice to say, this new release is magnificent in its own right. Part of the success is down to the intelligent programming. The three concertos are placed in chronological order and each presents different facets of the instrument's expressive range.
Nominally the Stanford Concerto is a 20th Century piece written as it was in 1902 but it faces resolutely towards the previous century. It was composed/inspired by Richard Mühlfield for whom Brahms wrote his late great spate of chamber works. Given Stanford’s admiration and musical debt to Brahms it is no surprise he would want to follow where the master led. In other works the gravitational pull of the German master could prove overwhelming but here Stanford finds an ideal balance by leavening the influence with original themes with enough of a hint of the Celt to result in something undeniably Romantic but also of great lyrical flow and individuality. Collins has technique to spare but the enduring impression of this disc is the sheer beauty of the sound he makes. In part - no doubt - he is helped by the skill of Stanford’s scoring which neatly leaves a ‘hole’ in the orchestration for the solo instrument to exploit. Indeed that composing skill is evident in all three works. Interestingly, I reviewed another Collins/Chandos disc not so long ago of a Berio orchestration of a Brahms Clarinet Sonata. There I felt Collins was fighting the orchestral texture - here he floats. The Chandos engineering is immaculate - rich and full but with ideal clarity too. Just listen at the very opening how the little trumpet fanfare figurations feature brightly in the orchestration without domineering. Here Chandos trump themselves and their previous recording in Ulster with Vernon Handley and Janet Hilton. Indeed they are cleaner and more lucid than the recording given to Emma Johnson on ASV.
Each of these concertos is in standard three-movement form and for each the central slow movement is where the most tellingly deep musical utterances are made. It is fascinating to hear the expressive progression through the century. Stanford writes a beautiful Irish Song without Words. The Finzi Adagio senza rigore must surely be one of the profoundest pieces in the clarinet literature and as such something far beyond Stanford’s emotional compass. This is one of Finzi’s outstanding movements - recalling the spirit of the great Dies Natalis - evoking a pastoral landscape but a strangely bleached and haunted one. The strings of the BBCSO are superb at catching this frozen terrain and the engineering - it sounds as if the microphones are a little tighter in here than in the fuller orchestrated other works - exploits the austere beauty to the full. Collins is simply magnificent - emotion tightly reined and understated to perfection. He produces a stream of some of the most limpidly beautiful clarinet playing I have ever heard. A very favourite version of this concerto is by Alan Hacker on an early Nimbus CD. If one were able to quantify beauty-in-sound I suspect Collins would win but interestingly Hacker’s version remains every bit as valid and moving as an extraordinarily personal statement. Moving onto the Arnold slow movement the transition from Romantic ardour to Modernist isolation is complete. Arnold inhabits a lonely city nightscape. Consolation is found in temporary associations - first the oboe and then the flute duetting like desultory dancers in a late-night dive. By now, in this new recording, you have forgotten the absence of a conductor: the conception and execution of these performances is as one.
This is not the first time Collins has recorded the Finzi and Arnold Concertos. The former was on Virgin (VC 7 90718-2) with Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia as part of a mixed Finzi programme. I have not heard that disc. The Arnold was as part of the Conifer label’s traversal of Arnold’s concertos with Mark Stephenson and the London Musici. That was re-released as part of the Decca Arnold Edition of all the concertos and I do know the earlier performance too. Both versions are very good and well engineered. Both times Collins uses the first movement cadenza written by Richard Rodney Bennett - Arnold rather drops the soloist in it by writing “improvise cadenza, as jazzy and way out as you please”. Well the concerto was written for and inspired by Benny Goodman so being asked to really improvise was no big deal for him. Collins plays the cadenza very well indeed with a real feel for the idiom. In the only non-Collins version I have Emma Johnson plays another (her own?) cadenza which is fine but not quite as wild as you think Arnold was after. The most famous movement in this concerto is the closing Pre-Goodman Rag which is a brief proverbial crowd-pleaser. Certainly Collins pulls out all the stops and the entertainingly whooping horns are excitingly caught. Interestingly Johnson here is significantly slower but - as with Hacker’s Finzi - this throws a quite different but effective light on the work; it comes over as pawkier, with something of a swagger - Collins is 'just' stunningly virtuosic. Also, Johnson emulates an older-fashioned tremulous vibrato in the sudden central slow section - Collins is silver purity here. Both are gorgeous but I think Johnson edges the moment by being cornier which at that instant seems the right emotional choice.
For the rest, Chandos seem able to produce discs with uniformly high production values as a matter of course. Anthony Burton’s liner-note is interesting and informative. I disagree with his trotting out the party-line about Arnold using “the banal clichés of the music-hall”. In context it is not meant as a criticism here but aside from the minor detail that music-hall as popular entertainment was dead before World War I this propagates the myth that in some way Arnold fell back on populist gestures when everything else failed. That’s a minor quibble and in no way detracts from the overall quality of this disc. As a rule I tend to prefer ‘one composer’ discs but this is as fine a compilation of concertos as you will hear. The Finzi is a great concerto regardless of instrument, the other two enrich the woodwind repertoire significantly and all three deserve to be in the collection of anyone interested in either wind or British music. Brought together in one place on a disc of such quality I suspect this will be judged as Collins’ finest recording to date and one of the finest concerto discs of the year.
Nick Barnard 

Collins’ finest recording to date and one of the finest concerto discs of the year. 

Finzi discography & review index