Michael Collins and the Brodsky Quartet: Seemingly Effortless Musicality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Brahms: Michael Collins (clarinet), Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland, Ian Belton (violins), Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello)). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 19.3.2014 (MB)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115


This was a delightful concert from beginning to end, Michael Collins and the Brodsky Quartet imparting seemingly effortless musicality to their performances of the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, never, so far as I recall, putting a step wrong. There were no mannerisms, just good and, in the best sense, old-fashioned musicianship. The opening Allegro of the Mozart work sounded with that almost impossible-to-define and yet equally impossible-to-ignore ‘lateness’ of the composer’s ‘late’ works, haunted by beautiful and – crucially – meaningful chiaroscuro. (Dating from 1789, it is not actually so very ‘late’, but anyway…) The tempo here, as elsewhere, sounded just right, so that one did not even notice it. There was a profusion of melody, of course, and what melody! In perfect balance, however, there was to be heard decidedly ‘late’ counterpoint, Mozart by now having utterly subsumed the examples of Bach and Handel into his own writing. The development proved quite scintillating, allowing all players to shine. And there were sensual, quasi-operatic delights to be had too, especially during the recapitulation: duets between Collins and Daniel Rowland perhaps especially beguiling.

Is there a more heart-stopping melody than the opening theme to the slow movement? It was treated here to that most difficult yet crucial of tasks: a performance of simplicity that belied artistry. However, it would be nothing without Mozart’s extraordinary harmonies, and they were voiced, their progress traced, to perfection. And again – those duets! Here they seemingly prefigured La clemenza di Tito. There was a sweetness that can only really be termed celestial; and yet, there was equally a longing that was very much of this world, whether we think of it as sexual or as a longing for the beatific vision. The minuet again sounded with ‘lateness’, not the least of whose exceptional passages are in the first, strings-only trio – which yet sounds quite different from Mozart’s writing for string quartet as such. There was throughout an air, refracted, of the outdoor serenades of old: now more fragile, more painful. The finale benefited from well-nigh flawless command of pulse and rhythm, never forced. There was minore tragedy to be heard, with wonderful, unexaggerated flexibility, and a delectable account of the slow variation. What a pity some idiot did his best to ruin the performance by clapping during the penultimate bar. By some miracle, he failed to do so.

The first movement of the Brahms quintet announced the voice of someone who might have wished to be Mozart but who knew all too well that his historical position, amongst other things, would not permit that: ‘lateness’ in a different and yet not entirely dissimilar sense. Textures were thicker, though not too much so. The fury of Brahms’s earlier years coexisted with later serenity. All dialectics? Well, yes: this is Brahms, after all. The cello sounded properly more prominent. Tone was richer overall, though with some beautifully hushed moments. The Adagio was songful, at times uneasy; yet, however involved Brahms’s writing became, the players ensured that his songfulness remained. Torment and solace, then, though sometimes one might well have asked, ‘which is which?’ And the Schubertian heavenly length: one would not have wished it any other way. There was a nicely questing, intermezzo-like mood to the third movement. Contrasts were skilfully integrated into its all-too-short whole: a telling contrast with the expansiveness of its predecessor, time advancing. Integration was very much to the fore in the finale too, including telling integration of tendencies within the work as a whole. That is hard Brahmsian work, but infinitely worth the toil. We heard a performance that was weighty in the best sense, certainly not ponderous, and with plenty of light as well as shade.

Mark Berry

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