On Record – Michael Collins, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba – Arnold: Clarinet Concerto no.1, Philharmonic Concerto etc (Chandos)

Arnold
Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto no.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento no.2 Op.24 / Op.75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (arranged for orchestra by Philip Lane)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba

Chandos CHAN20152 [68’50″’]
Producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George Engineers Stephen Rinker, Richard Hannaford and John Cole
Recorded 5 & 6 December 2019, 29 July at MediaCity UK, Salford

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of six pieces from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s composing career stretches from one of his first published pieces, Larch Trees, to one of his last, the Philharmonic Concerto. Both were written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom he played trumpet from 1941 until 1948, and with whom he maintained a close association as a composer.

In between these pieces Chandos have chosen a satisfying mix of styles to reveal Arnold as a multi-faceted composer, not just the humourous one of which we hear most. That side of his writing is happily celebrated through The Padstow Lifeboat and the Divertimento no.2 for orchestra reveals the happiness he found through writing for children and young people, being young at heart himself.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture finds Arnold in commission mode, called upon to write the music for Royal Prologue: Crown and Commonwealth, a programme narrated by Sir Laurence Oliver to preface the 25th Christmas speech by a ruling monarch. Completing the collection is the first of many concertos from Arnold’s pen, and the first of two for clarinet.

What’s the music like?

Chandos have already presented us with a good deal of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music, and this is further enhanced by a programme giving us first recordings and revealing each side of the composer’s personality.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture gets proceedings off to a suitably ceremonial start, with plenty of bluster and high jinks, all buoyed by colourful percussion. The influence of William Walton is immediately evident, for the main theme has more than a little in common with his own ceremonial march Crown Imperial, but Arnold goes on to develop it in his own inimitable way.

The Clarinet Concerto is a compact piece, deft and slightly bluesy in the outer movements but pausing for meaningful reflection in the Andante, the emotional centre of the work.

The Second Divertimento, long thought lost, is a fun piece where a lot happens in nine minutes! Using a traditional-sounding structure, Arnold has a lot of fun with the bracing Fanfare, atmospheric Nocturne and grand Chaconne, harnessing the power of the large orchestra.

The two pieces for the London Philharmonic are next, and are vividly contrasting pieces of work. Larch Trees is an evocative musical sketch, reminiscent of Moeran in the way it pans out over the rugged terrain of northern England, while also confiding intimately in its listeners through the woodwind. The Philharmonic Concerto is more obviously noisy and confrontational, this late work utilising the dissonance which will be noted by those familiar with Arnold’s later symphonies. This is not comfortable music but it is brilliantly written, challenging the orchestra to throw off their shackles. The probing violin lines of the Aria offer a chance for deeper reflection.

Finally The Padstow Lifeboat, one of Arnold’s brass band treasures, with its persistent ‘wrong note’ which warns all shipping. It makes for the ideal sign-off.

Does it all work?

Yes, and wonderfully so. Rumon Gamba has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Arnold’s music and comes up trumps here, leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in some characterful and personal accounts. Arnold could hardly wish for better advocacy and understanding, the conductor charting his youthful prowess in Larch Trees, whose softer contours benefit from excellent recording by the Chandos engineers.

The Clarinet Concerto no.1 is brilliantly played by Michael Collins, negotiating the wide leaps of the solo part with aplomb, while responding with grace in the soulful slower sections. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic exploit the depths of the darker slow movement, its temperature appreciably colder by the end.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. This is an anthology that will appeal to seasoned Arnold listeners, for its mix of the familiar and a curio or two, while it is also the ideal place for those new to the composer. If you are after some music to combat the onset of January, you have come to the right place!

Listen

Buy

For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

Wigmore Mondays – Michael Collins and the Borodin String Quartet play Mozart

borodin-quartet

Michael Collins (clarinet) and the Borodin String Quartet (above) (Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 25 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07866f4

Available until 24 May

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky, arr. Rostislav Dubinsky – Album d’enfants, Op.39 (1878) (29 minutes)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 (28 minutes) (1789)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below, including a recording of Rostislav Dubinsky’s arrangement:

About the music

Tchaikovsky’s Album d’enfants follows in the footsteps of Schumann’s collection for piano of the same name, yet this set of 24 piano miniatures is designed to be played by children as well. It includes dances, children’s pieces, portraits and flights of fancy, with most pieces little more than a minute and a half in length.

In it the composer allows his inner child to run free, in the same manner it was to do later in life in the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. This arrangement for string quartet was made by the Borodin String Quartet’s previous first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky.

michael-collins

Clarinetist Michael Collins

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is probably the best known work for the combination of clarinet and string quartet, and it was written late in his life – 1789 – for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is written in A major, the same key the composer was to use for his final orchestral work, the Clarinet Concerto, and is notable for its sunny mood.

Performance verdict

This was a charming concert, though the Borodin String Quartet did take quite a serious approach to even the most infantile of Tchaikovsky’s character pieces. They were effective in their arrangements, and the quartet played with charm, delicacy and poise.

The Clarinet Quintet enjoyed a similar performance – serious but enjoying the work’s abundance of melody, although the decision not to employ the repeats Mozart marks in the first two movements changed its dimensions rather. Michael Collins was a good match, allowing himself a freer rein at times in the solo part, and while the quartet and clarinettist did not exchange much in the way of glances during the performance, theirs was an account notable for its unity. When played as beautifully as it was here, the Clarinet Quintet is as vivid an evocation of spring as you could wish to hear!

What should I listen out for?

Tchaikovsky

1:20 Morning prayer a charming, contented slow piece

2:42 A Winter morning – quite a blustery one by the sounds of it! Quicker interplay between the instruments

3:32 The Hobby-Horse – a quick portrait of a horse that seems to be difficult to capture!

4:17 Little Mother – soft and reassuring music that speaks of safety and warmth

5:55 March of the Wooden Soldiers – the title sounds like something out of The Nutracker, and the tune is similar. A crisp march.

6:49 The Sick Doll – the mutes are on for this fragile, mournful portrait, which sinks despondently into its minor key.

8:20 The Doll’s Funeral – the doll has now died, and this movement marks its passing with plaintive pizzicato.

9:49 The New Doll – the funeral has passed and a relatively quick and brief waltz, the face of the new doll lifts the mood from the doldrums.

10:29 Old French Song – A solemn piece, but with elements of warmth too. A beautifully scored movement, this has a lovely unison between first violin and cello.

11:48 German Song – this cheery dance has a jagged rhythm and opens out into quite a knees-up! The viola (I think) can be heard tapping its strings rhythmically half way through.

13:00 Italian Song – this has a lovely warmth, and the full part writing allows us to hear a lovely, rich quartet sound, with the cello plucking underneath.

14:15 Neapolitan Song – here the peasant is playing a form of concertina – and it sounds a lot of fun from the cello plucking and the sprightly tunes from the quartet!

15:24 Waltz – this has a lovely, simple tune for first violin, with the other instruments mostly off the beat.

16:52 Mazurka – a grand introduction from the cello with multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once), taken over by the violin

18:10 Polka – a charming, brief dance, lively and with some imaginative violin harmonics at the top end.

19:21 Russian Song – a solemn intonation from each instrument in turn, taking on the form of a canon but then settling to a relatively calm finish

20:21 The Peasant Plays His Ziehharmonika­ – the instrument effectively portrayed here is the concertina, the quartet playing as one.

21:05 Popular Song (Kamarainskaya) – this is brilliantly sent up by the violin especially, with squeaky high harmonicas like an old creaking chest of drawers

22:28 Sweet Dreams – a sentimental tune where Tchaikovsky allows some indulgence

24:43 The Old Nurse’s Tale The scratchy strings here give a lovely impression of old age, and the tale itself is lightly humorous.

25:40 The Witch: Baba-Yaga Even more scratchy is the old witch, played with the bows right close to the finger board for a more scary sound.

26:22 Song of the Lark The lark makes a beautiful sound here, thanks to the first violin over warm string accompaniment.

27:52 The Organ-Grinder Sings – over the held chords of the organ the first violin sings in a rather small voice.

29:02 In Church – a solemn finish to the cycle, given by the quartet in very subdued and rather eerie tones.

Mozart

27:07 – the first movement (marked Allegro) begins with the strings, a restful series of chords that are actually the first theme, a support for when the clarinet rises through the texture. Then, a minute later, the clarinet enjoys a tune that rises through the texture, floating gracefully. At 30:06 Mozart develops his ideas, the main theme coming back at 31:18.

34:01 – the second movement is marked Larghetto. In the key of D major, it is notable for its restraint and beautiful, spaced out melody heard on the clarinet at the outset. The melody returns at 37:50 in an even softer guise, peaceful and rather moving.

40:44 – a stately Minuet for the third movement, led by the clarinet but egged on by the strings. Mozart includes two contrasting ‘Trio’ sections – the first in the key of A minor (42:01). The Minuet section is repeated at 43:59 before a second trio at 44:40, another graceful dance led by the clarinet. The Minuet returns for the final time at 47:00.

47:47 – the final movement consists of a perky theme from the strings, embellished by the clarinet – and then five variations on it. The first (48:36) gives the clarinet a free reign, the next (49:30) hands over the baton to the first violin in an energetic section. The third (50:25) moves into the minor key and a brief shadow falls over the music, before 51:36, where the clarinet joyously lets itself go in the fourth variation. Then the music pauses, almost in an operatic sense, with a complete freedom of tempo as the clarinet leads the movement towards a close – where the perky theme reappears (54:36).

Further listening

Having heard the Borodin Quartet in sympathetic versions of Tchaikovsky, it makes perfect sense to expand that to the composer’s three published string quartets, which are relatively rare in concert these days. They are extremely enjoyable works. The First is notable for its slow movement, the Andante cantabile, which Tchaikovsky arranged for string orchestra, while the Third is a particularly poignant piece of work. As a bonus the album below includes the Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet: