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Bernhard Henrik CRUSELL (1775-1838)
Concerto in E flat major for clarinet and orchestra, Op 1 (c 1807-08) [19:59]
Grand Concerto in F minor for clarinet and orchestra, Op 5 (c 1815) [21:24]
Concerto in B flat major for clarinet and orchestra, Op 11 (c 1807- c 1829) [22:46]
Introduction et air suédois, Op. 12 (1804) [9:42]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/ Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. Konserthuset, Örebro, Sweden, 2017
Reviewed in surround

When I first got to know these works in the early 1980s (through my fascination with Finnish music rather than any real interest in this particular repertoire) recordings of the three concertos were thin on the ground. Thanks to the advocacy of luminaries such as Emma Johnson there are roughly a dozen versions now available. My particular favourites have been Fröst on BIS (BIS – SACD-1723- review) and Pay on the old Virgin Classics label (7243- 561 5852 – still available on a Veritas twofer with the Weber concertos). So is there any real need for another set? When the soloist and conductor is the wonderful Michael Collins and the band is the Swedish Chamber Orchestra the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Especially when the rarely heard Introduction et air suédois, Op. 12 is thrown in as well.

From the opening bars of the E flat Concerto Op 1 the listener is aware of the impressive level of detail caught by the engineers. The SCO project a combination of precision, nobility and elegance. The introduction swings – the timpani are crisp and this is before Collins has even blown a note. From his first few phrases the joie de vivre cascades from his clarinet –one wants to capture and bottle it. While the playing is so natural, I have always thought that Collins does with the clarinet what Stephen Hough does with the piano – they utterly refresh familiar repertoire and both do so consistently on recordings. Both of course are BBC Young Musician alumni – indeed I was there in the RNCM concert hall 40 years ago (!) when Collins, my exact contemporary, played the Finzi concerto in the first ever final as a 16 year old, while Hough gave a rather nervous account of Mozart K449. My two companions and I were certain Collins would win – we were wrong. In fact I think we were all bowled over by Finzi’s masterly work itself which at that time none of us knew.

Here Collins’ approach to this first concerto (it applies to the performance of No 3 too) seems very understated, yet there is a clear determination to deliver these works, which are sometimes dismissed by critics as lightweight, as credible and even serious. He has total control over his superb orchestra, although how he physically achieves that is a mystery. Their concentration is acute and their unanimity breathtaking. Fleeting details underline this – the scurrying string figure at 5’06 into the first movement is one example. I suppose one explanation for the freshness of Collins’ approach is that there is by now something of a recorded tradition in these works. A benchmark if you like, upon which to build. One rarely encounters a poor recording of the set – Crusell himself must take much of the credit for that – but I have to say I detect a fair bit of homogeneity in the performances in the half-dozen or so issues I have heard. That’s not a criticism of individual performances, merely an observation. Collins injects something different into all three concertos, for sure. In the Adagio of the first, where Crusell’s template is pretty obvious, Collins somehow manages to avoid dwelling on its Mozartian style, and his cool and pure tone enables the listener to recognise Crusell rather than his model. The pace in this brief movement is perfectly judged. I only wish it lasted a bit longer! The jolly march-like figure at the outset of the Rondo is delightfully unassuming – its charm worn lightly. Again one wonders how Collins is conducting the orchestra at all, they respond to his every sigh and wink as one. The coda reveals accompaniment every inch as virtuosic as Collins’ playing.

The Concerto No 2 in F minor Op 5 is often dubbed the ‘Grand Concerto’ and was actually the last of the three to be composed, in 1815. Commentators tend to regard it as Crusell’s masterpiece. Colin Lawson’s succinct and helpful note highlights its more sophisticated melodic content and tauter structure (compared to its siblings) while its minor key affords it more gravitas in general. The precision playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra here is especially conspicuous in surround sound. This concerto is very different from its siblings. While Beethoven and especially Mendelssohn may be hovering in the wings it’s Crusell that Collins is again more concerned with and again there is a winning freshness to his playing. The orchestra’s refined contributions are a joy in themselves. The balance in the wind/brass dialogues in the first movement are expertly realised. The strings have appropriate depth (some critics moaned about a rather thin tone in their recent Brahms recordings for BIS – that is indubitably not apparent here). The adagio pastorale of this concerto is in my view the most beautiful single movement in all Crusell and I include the chamber music in that assertion. Here its grace and songfulness is stunningly rendered by Michael Collins. The colours he draws from his instrument, in what is a deceptively uncomplicated movement, are ravishing, more even than in Fröst’s superb account. The lack of ego on Collins’ part and the sense of collaboration between soloist and orchestra really registers. When the final Rondo arrives the terseness that began the piece has largely been banished to the sidelines. There is a impressive flexibility in the orchestra’s response to Collins – while his playing exudes a lightly-worn virtuosity which is deployed purely in the service of the music.

The Concerto No 3 in B flat, Op 11 seems to have been published long after its completion. It is again rather Mozartian although the alla polacca finale has been compared to another composer beloved of clarinettists, Weber. The present performance is again characterised by the obvious generosity of spirit in Collins’ conducting. The individual contributions of the wind principals of the orchestra stand out as expressive and stylish. The recording has superb detail. As for Collins’ own playing, all of my earlier complimentary remarks apply. He makes it sound so easy – it isn’t. The brief cadenza in the slow movement is absorbed into its structure in the most subtle way. The elasticity in his playing in the Weberian finale is jaw-dropping.

There is still more in the form of the exhilarating Introduction et air suédois, op 12 which truly is a vehicle for Collins’ virtuosity. The Swedish tune referred to in the title is translated as ‘Dear boy, empty the glass’. As you might imagine this is a drinking tune which Crusell arranges and varies with great glee and no little wit. I’d never heard the work before and the tune itself is a beast to remove from one’s head. The Introduction et air certainly makes considerable demands of the soloist, challenges which are no match for Collins lightly-worn skills. I bet he fancied a pint after playing it though. It concludes a wonderful issue which is probably the best Crusell disc out there.

Richard Hanlon



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