United Kingdom Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Bizet: Michael Collins (clarinet), Zoë Smith (piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 27.3.2015 (LJ)
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 120
Camille Saint-Saëns: Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167
Georges Bizet: Carmen Fantasy
Performing Saint-Saëns’ Clarinet Sonata, Op. 167, Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No 2 in E-flat major, Op. 120, and Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy, in a lunchtime concert accompanied by the RWCMD’s very own Zoë Smith, Michael Collins was sublime. It was immediately evident that Collins enjoyed every minute of his recital, almost as much as the audience at Cardiff’s RWCMD did. In an interview for Chandos Records, Collins succinctly stated: “I love performing; without it I don’t know what I would do.” This sheer pleasure and genuine enthusiasm for music translated directly into every phrase and gesture of Collins’ playing.
Born in Isleworth, west London, Collins enrolled at the Royal College in his early teens where he was taught by David Hamilton and Thea King. By the age of sixteen, Collins won the woodwind prize at the 1978 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, attaining a virtuoso status that has grown exponentially. Collins later became a teacher at the institution he studied at, the principal clarinettist for the Philharmonia Orchestra, and in 1988 founded the chamber ensemble London Winds.
Amongst sonatas for oboe and bassoon composed in the last year of his life when travelling between Algiers and Paris, Saint-Saëns’ Clarinet Sonata very much belongs to his late-style. He wrote to a friend: “I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments.” Performing his Clarinet Sonata Collins managed to expose the vocal strengths of the instrument. Playing the Allegretto so gently, as if coercing the music to emerge from the instrument and conveying a darkly romantic and sinister mood in the Lento, Collins performed with ease and confidence in both the slow movements and the faster more intricate passages of the fourth and final movement marked Molto allegro.
Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 2 was composed when Brahms was around sixty-one years old (and coming out of ‘retirement’ to do so) and has a dreamy, wistful quality. Upon witnessing a performance of the German clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld, whom Brahms called the greatest wind player in the world, Brahms wrote four final works (of which this piece belongs) with the clarinet taking centre-stage. Heavily influenced by Weber’s Clarinet Concerto, Brahms shares the same keys that inspired Weber. Using the same theme in the solo and accompaniment parts, he demonstrates his skill and fidelity in variation. In interpreting this piece, Collins was electrifying in the last movement (Andante con moto), donning the music with punctuation and performing with panache. It seems fitting to quote Thomas Mann’s description of the clarinet in his Adorno-infused novel Doctor Faustus (1947): “The many-keyed clarinet, which can sound so ghostly in the deep chalumeau register but higher up can gleam in silvery blossoming harmony.”
Lastly, in Bizet’s Carmen Fantasia Collins was mesmerising to watch, let alone listen to. His ornamentation and florid inventiveness were boundless and irrepressible. The accompaniment throughout by Zoë Smith was of considerable merit. In particular, in her ability to anticipate Collins’ next moves in this piece Smith deserves acclaim. Despite playing with astonishing alacrity, Collins was note perfect, his tone remained crisp and timbre oaky. Perhaps the only fitting way to describe Collins’ sound is to regurgitate what is written on the label of a bottle of the finest Malbec.
Ambrose Bierce (‘Bitter Bierce’ as he is better known) described the clarinet as: “an instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments worse than a clarinet – two clarinets”. In this recital nothing could be further removed from this description than the instrument Collins held in his hands.