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 (1948-49) [28:07]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Clarinet Concerto No.2, Op.115 (1974) [16:00]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. January 2012, Blackheath Halls (Arnold, Finzi) and April 2012, Watford Colosseum (Stanford)
CHANDOS CHAN10739 [65:45]
Michael Collins revisits his discography with this release, re-making both the Finzi and Arnold concertos. He recorded the Finzi with Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia back in 1987 [Virgin Classics 790718-2]. It was a lovely disc, full of quiet virtuosity and inherent lyricism, and was sympathetically directed by Hickox. Here we must note the immediate difference: Collins has dispensed with a conductor. He plays and directs, and so all decision-making as regards tempi, balance and the like are his alone.
I doubt it’s that, simply, which has accounted for a slight shift in his approach. It’s not such a drastic difference, in any case, considering a quarter of a century has elapsed since that earlier disc. Still, he now takes slightly more room to breathe in the slow movement and takes the first movement just a notch faster. This in no way realigns the work, simply slightly tautens its exciting opening and allows the Adagio an extra quotient of pathos; pathos, moreover, that he enhances and underlines through the use of some really unusually emotive string phrasing.
He recorded Arnold’s Second Concerto in 1993 for Conifer with London Musici directed by Mark Stephenson [CDCF228]. His new recording is decidedly more pungent, both in his articulation and dynamics and in terms of the recording’s sonic immediacy. All systems are go with this one: it makes a deal more impact all round. Tempi are unchanged, the interpretation is discernibly from the same approach, but the BBC Symphony really digs in, helped no end by the recording. The Conifer was a much flatter acoustic and the result was pleasing but rather static. Again there’s a greater depth to the slow movement, where sentiment mixes with something here approaching grief. And the fun of the varsity rag finale is almost immediately elided by the reflective B section. The notes relate that the first movement cadenza was written by Richard Rodney Bennett but strangely don’t add that this was as a result of a commission from Michael Collins himself (not a jazz player) specifically for the earlier recording on Conifer.
Finally there is a discographic first for Collins in the shape of Stanford’s genial Concerto in A minor of 1902. This receives a winning reading, with Collins’s tone variegated, and subtly deployed, seemingly unlimited by technical concerns. Competition here comes from Thea King [Helios CDH55101] and an archive off-air broadcast performance from her husband, from whom she learned the work, Jack Thurston [Symposium 1259]. I won’t suggest you must have the Thurston disc, not least because of the age of the performance, but he did perform the work under Stanford’s watchful and approving eye: the composer wrote a letter of appreciation to the young clarinettist. Thurston, playing beautifully and highly distinctively, was accompanied by the BBC Scottish under Stanford Robinson in September 1952. Chandos’s sonics are that much more immediate than the Hyperion/Helios, but I find huge merit in both performances artistically; and while I’m at it, you will never in your life hear keening portamenti in the concerto’s slow movement such as Stanford Robinson evoked.
I’m pleased that Collins has returned to the Arnold and Finzi, adding the Stanford. His decision to direct as well as play is justified by the results. These are all terrific performances.
Jonathan Woolf
Terrific performances. 

see also review by Nick Barnard (November 2012 Recording of the Month)