Michael Collins’ Wigmore Hall Residency: the Finale

Brahms, Weber, Poulenc, Benjamin, Milhaud, Gregson: Michael Collins (clarinet), Piers Lane (piano). Wigmore Hall, London 5. 5. 2011 (KC)

Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonata in E flat Op. 120/2 (1894)
Carl Maria von Weber: Grand Duo concertant Op. 48 (1815-16)
Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1959-62)
Arthur Benjamin: Le Tombeau de Ravel (1958)
Darius Milhaud: Scaramouche Op. 165b (1937 arr. for clarinet and piano)
Edward Gregson: Tributes (2010 London première)

This concert marked the end of Michael Collins’ year-long residency at the Wigmore Hall. It also made a fascinating contrast to Martin Fröst’s appearance in the ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ concert at King’s Place on April 13th (the quintet and concerto for clarinet). Fröst is brilliant and a showman. With leaping physical agility, he puts on a mesmerizing, mercurial display. A Peter Pan in his early 40s, he is still (supremely) capable of amazing his elders. Michael Collins (one of Fröst’s elders) is much less ostentatious. By the piano, he makes his stand – solid and foursquare. Attitude and stance are workmanlike: he has a job to do. Quietly, matter-of-factly, he lets us hear for ourselves that he is a master of his craft.

The programme was a dazzling panoramic display. We experienced the clarinet’s range and distinct contribution to musical sound, expressed through a survey of music over the last two hundred years. The programme also – shrewdly, and especially after re-arrangement of the second half – moved from the heavy towards the light, from the serious to the impish, from the romantic melodist to the articulate observer and satirist.

In all this, Piers Lane  accompanied Michael Collins colourfully, changing his style and manner of piano playing with all the aplomb and insouciance of Tommy Cooper switching from one to another of his store of hats. Suddenly, while listening to the joking, raucous dexterity of his Milhaud, I remembered the rolling passionate intensity of his Brahms, barely an hour earlier. This was a partner of distinction, no mere also-ran of an accompanist.

The Brahms was genial but powerful, with an energetic sweep. Its pulse had a public largeness, but also generosity of spirit deriving from a private mood of relaxation. (This was one of Brahms’ last chamber pieces, written specifically for Richard Mühlfeld renowned for his warmth and purity of tone.) The Weber was a much more public work, aiming to astonish listeners with its virtuoso display of the clarinet’s capabilities. A skilled composer was putting his considerable skills on brilliant parade. The Poulenc is a rare Gallic jewel, justly famed. It is elegant and sharp, poised and self-aware – stylishly trivial, one might say … until Poulenc turns the tables in the Romanze and shows a heart of exquisite sensibility.

Benjamin’s Le Tombeau de Ravel was fun, claiming that the clarinet was especially suited to expressing Ravel’s aristocratic sentiment, mixed with a dollop of Anglo-Saxon solidity. The Milhaud was a glistening, glittering assembly of musical scraps selected from incidental music to two plays for children (put on at the Théâtre Scaramouche in around 1937, together with a Brazileira first used in a play named Bolivar put on elsewhere in 1936). Edward Gregson’s Tributes comprised 5 short tributes, each to a particular clarinettist and composer. In the space of 16 or so minutes, Gregson moves skilfully but exactingly through dreaminess, with acerbic awakening, from ‘Poulenc’ to lyrical-pastoral from ‘Finzi’, to melody-driven sostenuto from ‘Messiaen’, to trampoline-jump intervals from ‘Stravinsky’, finishing with spectacular, and difficult, virtuosity in a “folk-dance” from ‘Bartók’.

This was the true end of the concert. Two sedate and run-of-the-mill encores followed, quite unnecessarily.

Ken Carter