Collins and Hough combine hearts and minds: definitive Brahms at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms and Beethoven: Michael Collins (clarinet), Stephen Hough (piano) Castalian String Quartet (Sini Simonen, Daniel Roberts [violins], Charlotte Bonneton [viola], Christopher Graves [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 6.1.2020. (CSa)

Michael Collins © Ben Ealovega

Brahms – Clarinet Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.120; Clarinet Sonata No.2  in E, Op.120, Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op.115

Beethoven – Violin Sonata in F, Op.24 ‘Spring’ (arr. Stephen Hough)

Combining heads and hearts, pianist Stephen Hough joined clarinettist Michael Collins in a sumptuous evening of Brahms’s late Op.120 Clarinet Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, and his Clarinet Quintet in B minor. In an acknowledgment to the irrepressible Beethoven in the 250th anniversary year of his birth, the recital also included the ‘Spring’ Sonata in F, artfully rearranged by Hough for clarinet and string quartet. Few composers of Brahms’s stature have divided musical opinion so profoundly, or provoked such passionate and conflicting reactions. Quite why is a mystery. Tchaikovsky, who met the great man on a number of occasions and heard him play, dismissed Brahms as ‘a self-inflated mediocrity’ who ‘failed to speak clearly and meet the heart’. Benjamin Britten waspishly remarked that ‘It is not bad Brahms that I mind, it’s good Brahms that I cannot stand’.

Stephen Hough and Michael Collins stand firmly on the other side of the divide. For Hough, every gesture in every bar of Brahms’s work has ‘the most acute sense of proportion, of intelligence, of architectural logic … He doesn’t so much share his deepest emotions with an audience as allow each one of us individually to seek and find them … He is as touching a musical creator as any I know.” For Collins, Brahms treats the clarinet like a human voice.

These were precisely the qualities that these two players brought to the opening work in the first half of the recital, the Sonata No.1 in F minor Op.120. In a fastidiously balanced partnership, Collins and Hough introduced freshness and vitality into this autumnal masterpiece. The clarinet sang with warmth and purity in the first movement’s Allegretto appassionato, while the piano responded sensitively with passages of wistful grandeur. The poignant Andante was presented without a trace of sentimentality, contrasting beautifully with the joyful Allegretto grazioso and final Vivace.

Autumn turned to Spring with an intriguing performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in F, in which Collins was joined by the burgeoning Castalian Quartet. The clarinet and four young strings proved a perfect substitute for Beethoven’s violin and piano – entering into a high-spirited exchange in the opening Allegro. A tender Adagio gave way to a gleefully syncopated Scherzo, followed by a gloriously sunny Rondo and Finale

Brahms and autumn returned in the concert’s second half. The genial Clarinet Sonata in E flat opened expansively with Collins’s sinuous clarinet floating dreamily above a finely controlled piano. In the rhapsodic second movement, Hough gave full voice to the piano’s undulating surges of emotion, but reined back the temptation to dominate the conversation. The clarinet’s creamy depth of tone was much in evidence in the Andante before the two men brought the movement to its euphoric conclusion.

Collins, joined once more by the young Castalians, ended the programme with a rapturous performance of Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B. One of Brahms’s biographers claimed that ‘the tone of gentle loving regret’, which permeates this work, reflected the composer’s sense that evening was not far away. Such maudlin thoughts were banished in Collins’s sensuous reading of the Quintet. Autumn? Yes, but the strings radiated the golden warmth of harvest at sunrise rather than sunset, injecting youthful vigour into the Allegro and a soft sweetness in the Adagio. Collins’s clarinet glided and hovered sky high in the final poignant moments of the last movement. A magical evening of superlative music making! If only Tchaikovsky and Britten could have been there to hear it.

Chris Sallon

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