Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838) was a notable clarinettist, best remembered by his compositions for that instrument although until relatively recently only the Concertante (for clarinet and bassoon) and his Grand Concerto attracted any great attention. Born at Nystad (Uusikaupunki), Finland, this Swedish-speaking musician was multilingual and much-travelled although he lived for the greater part of his life in Sweden. He is famous for his many translations of opera librettos – still in use after two centuries (I recall attending a performance of Fidelio sung in Crusell’s Swedish translation). He wrote chamber music featuring wind instruments and many songs which were largely based on Norse sagas. He also wrote a Singspiel entitled Lilla slavinnan (The Little Slave Girl), of which the Finnish version – Pieni orjatar – is held at the Royal Academy in Stockholm.
Crusell’s orchestration is similar to that of his close contemporary Beethoven, but the three Clarinet Concertos differ in mood; Michael Collins successfully adapts his style to the requirements of each. The First dates from around 1807 but was heard until 1815, the same year as the Grand Concerto, and the last of the three was much-revised until 1822 although publication was not until 1829.
The initial theme of Opus 1 is a call to attention and includes fanfare-like elements, perhaps a reminder that Crusell had been a musician in military bands since the age of twelve; later in life when resident in Sweden he was conductor of the Bands of the Grenadier Regiments in Linköping. Military tendencies recur as Michael Collins enters – forwardly and boldly – this straightforward and cheerful music then proceeds in Classical form. As in all three works the ten-minute first movement is approximately equal in length to the sum of the other two and in this work the Adagio lasts a mere three-and-a-half minutes, it is however eloquent and extremely beautiful, phrased sensitively by Collins whereas the Finale is full of bouncing jollity – with hints of Weber.
The Grand Concerto has a different philosophy, opening in an atmosphere of seriousness; Beethoven is brought strongly to mind. The nature of this dramatic music is enhanced by Collins’s fullness of tone and richness of phrasing, which also illuminates the Andante pastorale, notable for its subtle pizzicato accompaniment. The many demanding runs and flourishes that appear in the Finale are achieved effortlessly – a showpiece certainly but the Concerto’s aura of gravity is retained.
The B-flat work breaks slightly from tradition by including a brief passage for clarinet in the orchestral introduction. This is Crusell in tuneful mood with demanding moments included in the texture, which substitute for a cadenza; in fact only one is specified, in the following Andante but it is short. ‘Alla polacca’ is the title of the Finale and now Weber is firmly sighted; delightful melodies skip along in jaunty rhythm.
There remains the friendly set of variations based on a Swedish song which translates as “Dear boy empty the glass”. The simple theme does not mean there is anything easy to play: Collins manages the spectacular flurries of notes with ease. As for the “boy”, he remains sober until the wild coda.