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La clarinette Parisienne
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Première Rhapsodie (1909/10) [7:43]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Introduction et Rondo, Op 72 (1898) [7:34]
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op 167 (1920) [15:14]
André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
Solo de concours (1899) [5:26]
Henri RABAUD (1873-1949)
Solo de concours (1901) [5:16]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for Two Clarinets (1918) [5:43]
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1962) [13:20]
Michael Collins (clarinet)
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
rec. November 2019 Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
BIS BIS-2497 SACD [61:56]

Where would today’s woodwind players be without the Paris Conservatoire? That establishment’s annual clarinet competitions have, in most years since 1836, commissioned special new test pieces through which competing students are tested in their musical and instrumental facility. In the early days the pieces were by the current professors of clarinet (notably Frédéric Berr and Hyacinthe Klosé), and have largely been forgotten today, but from 1898 when Widor wrote his Introduction et Rondo for that year’s contest, the test pieces have often taken on lives of their own well beyond their original purpose, and have not only hugely enriched the repertory but given the clarinet a wonderful range of pieces with which to showcase not only personal talent, but instrumental resources. Michael Collins’ latest recording is built around the competition pieces commissioned for various Conservatoire contests between 1898 and 1910, with a few others thrown in, to produce a snapshot of the kind of music being written for the clarinet in Paris at the beginning of the last century.

Two pieces are unequivocal competition testers and have titles to prove it. André Messager’s is a dazzling virtuoso display piece which is far more daunting than Collins makes it sound – he seems to float placidly over all those frantic runs and scales, and if he does need to catch his breath, he does so with such discretion that it never even momentarily interrupts what is a pretty solid barrage of notes. Henri Raboud’s Solo de concours, takes a more poised and measured course, opening with a sturdy and sustained idea which might lull anyone into a false sense of security. It suddenly turns into a light, naïve little tune with hints of something vaguely chinoiserie which, inevitably, builds up in excitement until, with a glorious flourish, Collins tosses off the sea-shanty like conclusion with tremendous aplomb.

The actual competition pieces on the disc are chronologically framed by Widor’s Introduction et Rondo and Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie. Both have entered the repertory and have long since lost their competitive implications. But if any clarinettist going through the mill at the Paris Conservatoire in the first decade of the 20th century was able to produce the kind of seamless, perfectly modulated tone over Debussy’s long-breathed melodic lines, as Collins does here, they would surely have been very special students indeed. This is a superlative performance of a truly magical work, the quick-fire changes of mood deftly handled by both Collins and his unfailingly sensitive pianist, Noriko Ogawa. The Widor dances along cheerfully and buoyantly, its virtuoso ending superbly managed here.

In his booklet notes Stephen Johnson suggests that “even as late as 1921” the clarinet was still considered something of an outsider in Parisian musical circles. Saint-Saëns, who died that year, wrote his Sonata with the intention of giving a “seldom considered instrument an opportunity to be heard”. One thing is certain; history has ensured the Saint-Saëns’ Sonata is one of the firmest fixtures in the clarinet repertory, and while every clarinet student plays a movement or two from it for their graded examinations at one time or another, Collins and Ogawa give it a performance here which elevates it into the realm of true virtuoso music – the final movement taken at such a breath-taking gallop that one can only marvel at the security and tautness of ensemble they both maintain, without flagging, for the movement’s five minute duration.

It is inconceivable that Poulenc would ever have been invited to write for the Paris Conservatoire’s students; and to hear why you only need listen to this gloriously impudent and rule-breaking Sonata for Two Clarinets, for which Collins is joined by Sérgio Pires. The two sometimes dance along in happy partnership, at other times go off on their separate ways, chasing each other around like a pair of scrabbling mice. This is a gloriously ebullient performance which comes like a blast of refrigerated air after the relative stuffiness of all those competition pieces.

But if Poulenc never wrote for the Conservatoire, he nevertheless hugely enriched the woodwind repertory with his series of sonatas with piano. The Clarinet Sonata, dating from the very end of his life, has a magnificence about it which is only enhanced by the occasional forays into more impudent territory – even in his 60s Poulenc still had a mischievous twinkle in his musical eye, even in the apparently grief-stricken first movement. Collins beautifully manages the mixture of sentimentality, passion and sheer simplicity which lies at the heart of the lovely second movement, while the wit and pure joie de vivre of the third movement provides a fitting conclusion to an absolute gem of a disc.

Marc Rochester

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