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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1938-43) [39:25]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, Op 31 [28:10]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. 2019, Watford Colosseum, UK. DSD
BIS BIS-2367 SACD [68:30]

So far as I’m aware, this is a unique coupling on disc, but the pairing of these lovely works by Vaughan Williams and Finzi is as logical as it is satisfying.

The celebrated clarinet virtuoso Michael Collins has been plying his trade as a conductor for some years now, including quite a lengthy spell as principal conductor of the City of London Sinfonia (2010-2018). It was with that orchestra, with Richard Hickox on the rostrum, that he made his first recording of the Finzi back in 1987 (Virgin Classics 790718-2). I’ve had that recording in my collection for many years. When Collins came to re-record the concerto in 2012, a version I’ve not heard, he acted as conductor himself (review).

It’s an outstandingly lovely concerto, though the first movement presents some contrasts which I suspect may be challenging for a conductor/soloist to bring off. The string orchestra opens proceedings with a short, very assertive passage; then after a short silence, the soloist responds with a long, seemingly endless flow of relaxed melody. Possibly the silent pause which Finzi wrote into the score helps, but even so in his combined role Collins has to make a swift and significant mental adjustment. As it is, he makes the adjustment very easily. As the movement unfolds there are some further examples of the strings playing assertive music with the soloist responding calmly and lyrically. Throughout this movement Collins’ playing is mainly songful and subtle, though Finzi also calls upon his soloist to display no little agility at times. In his excellent notes, Stephen Johnson observes: “Finzi seems to have penetrated to the soul of the [solo] instrument, making its character an essential part of the music’s unfolding”. How true that is, and how expertly Michael Collins makes us aware of it.

In the hushed opening minutes of the beguiling slow movement we can delight in really refined, sensitive playing from both Collins and the orchestra. Though there are some passages that require the clarinettist to play nimbly, most of the solo part sounds like one seamless and extended rhapsodic song. In a performance of such quality as this I’m delighted that Finzi made this the longest moment of the three because I just wanted to go on enjoying the music for as long as possible. Collins and the Philharmonia offer a treasurable performance. Finzi marked his rondo finale Allegro giocoso and the present performance certainly homes in on the ‘giocoso’ aspect. From his first merry entry, Michael Collins sets the tone, playing the folk-like solo line like a Pied Piper. There follows a super, highly enjoyable performance of the movement which should put a smile on anyone’s face. I thoroughly enjoyed this account of Finzi’s concerto.

If Michael Collins is competing against himself (and other clarinettists) in the Finzi then when it comes to the VW symphony he’s up against a host of luminaries, including (in alphabetical order) Barbirolli, Boult, Elder, Handley and Previn, not to mention a wonderful archive performance by the composer himself (review). I’ve known the recordings by all those aforementioned conductors for many years and I can honestly say that Collins need not fear the comparison. Furthermore, he has the not insignificant advantage that BIS have given him the best sound that I’ve experienced in a recording of this work.

I was struck from the start by the mellow orchestral sound – the symphony is placed first on the disc – and by Collins’ pacing of the music, which seems to me to be well-judged. The Philharmonia strings are gently radiant while the woodwind, especially, and the brass weave their parts around the sound of the string choir. At 5:07 the skies cloud over somewhat as we hear a three-note motif which I believe derives from Pilgrim’s Progress. This is prevalent as the music becomes more agitated. Collins gets just the right degree of energy and forward momentum into this episode. The movement’s climax (from 8:42) is nobly done, before the music fades to nothing at the close. This performance of the symphony has started auspiciously.

The shadowy scherzo goes well. I admired the deft, nimble playing of the strings and woodwinds. The brass contribution is good, too. I like Stephen Johnson’s use of the term “cloven-hoofed” to describe the brass music in the central section. Elsewhere, the section’s playing is admirably crisp unless VW specifically requires legato playing. The wonderful Romanza, suffused with references to Pilgrim’s Progress, is the heart of the symphony. Collins and the Philharmonia treat us to a glowing account of the music. The dignity and serenity of the music shine through. The playing is wonderful and once again the benefits of BIS’s superb recording is evident. The performance culminates in a fine account of the Passacaglia. Again, I don’t think Collins puts a foot wrong. From 7:12 the serene Epilogue (though not so termed by VW) is particularly satisfying. Here again VW incorporates material from Pilgrim’s Progress – restrained but resolute music associated with Pilgrim’s determination to complete his journey. The material is beautifully integrated into the movement’s structure and its inclusion is in no small measure responsible for the symphony ending on a note of quiet confidence. That’s beautifully captured in this performance.

I think this performance of VW’s most serene symphony is a fine, understanding and idiomatic one. The Philharmonia plays marvellously and Michael Collins’ direction is sure-footed. As I indicated at the start of my comments, this newcomer need not fear comparison with the established leaders in the field, even if it does not displace them. When one adds to that a splendid account of Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, this disc can be regarded as a winner.

It helps enormously that BIS have captured the performances in recordings which are well-nigh ideal for this music. There’s clarity allied to warmth, and I particularly appreciated the clarity, for example, in the way that the luminous woodwind lines are brought out to just the right degree in the first movement of the symphony. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD, both through headphones and loudspeakers, and I loved the results. Producer Robert Suff and engineer Mike Hatch should definitely take a bow. To complete the high production values of this release, Stephen Johnson’s notes are perceptive and sympathetic to the music.

In every respect, this release is a most desirable package.

John Quinn

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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