British Clarinet Concertos, Volume 2 – Benjamin Britten/Colin Matthews, Gerald Finzi, Arnold Cooke, William Mathias – Michael Collins and BBC Symphony Orchestra [Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

Britten, devised and orchestrated Colin Matthews
Movements for a Clarinet Concerto
Five Bagatelles [arr. Lawrence Ashmore as Op.23a]
Clarinet Concerto No.1
Clarinet Concerto, Op.68

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Michael Collins (clarinet)

Recorded 5 & 6 January 2012 at Blackheath Halls, London SE3, and 9 & 10 July 2015 at Studio 1, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: May 2016
Duration: 83 minutes

Michael Collins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present a second volume of British Clarinet Concertos. Their earlier Chandos collaboration (CHAN 10739) consisted of Concertos by Stanford, Finzi and Arnold. One of the connections between the two releases, apart from the instrument, is Benny Goodman.

Benjamin Britten had heard Goodman playing Mozart’s Concerto in December 1940 “very beautifully only he was pathetically nervous all the time and even played with the music.” A year later, Goodman and Britten had reached agreement with Boosey & Hawkes for a work, the first movement of which had been completed by the time Britten (and Peter Pears) left the US bound for home. Unfortunately, Britten’s manuscripts were seized by the customs before departure – perhaps they were considered as written in code useful to the enemy – and then seized again by the British authorities after a friend had later mailed them.

Meanwhile, other commitments, including the writing of Peter Grimes, had become pressing and the Concerto remained incomplete. The first and only movement was orchestrated by Colin Matthews in 1989 and was first-performed by Michael Collins the following year. In 2007, Matthews provided the remaining movements, adapting two of Britten’s works from the early-1940s, the Mazurka elegiaca for two pianos and an unfinished sketch for Sonata for Orchestra. Collins’s second recording (the first is on NMC) is a little more expansive, especially in the second movement. The result is a diverting and youthful piece, impish in parts, and Britten’s catalogue would be the poorer without it.

The geneses of the remaining works on this Chandos disc were not quite so tortuous. Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) wrote Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, skilfully arranged by Lawrence Ashmore for strings. While not plumbing the depths of Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, the Bagatelles’ five short movements make a varied piece, and Collins’s playing grabs the listener’s attention. The ‘Romance’ and the ‘Carol’ are particularly affecting.

The long-lived Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) had studied History at Cambridge, and then Music, pursuing his studies in Berlin with Paul Hindemith. Cooke’s tonal, contrapuntal music became somewhat unfashionable after the 1940s. Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (1955), with strings, is a substantial work in three movements. The first is energetic, of strength and depth. On first listening to the slow movement, on a warm day with the windows open, I was interrupted by a blackbird singing, and was later surprised to read in Anthony Burton’s excellent booklet essay that this music was inspired by birdsong. The Finale makes for a light and jaunty contrast.

William Mathias (1934-1992) wrote his Clarinet Concerto in 1975 for Gervase de Peyer who had given the first performance of the Cooke. The much-missed Mathias scored his Concerto for strings and percussion. The opening movement, probing and energetic, is succeeded by a melancholic slow one communicating strong feelings. The Finale is a soufflé of high spirits and dancing. As throughout the disc, contrasts are beautifully laid out by Collins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and his playing is virtuosic and deeply thoughtful.

Recording quality from both locations is first-class, with ideal and realistic balance between clarinet and orchestra. This is an excellent release, encouraging much repeated listening.

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