Michael Collins (clarinet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin [Corigliano and Zhou Long]
All recorded in 2004 in the Royal Albert Hall, London, during that years BBC Proms season
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: September 2005
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
Duration: 65 minutes
It has long been one of the enduring mysteries of British musical life that the BBC has been so parsimonious with regard to the commercial distribution of its bottomless archives. Although digital dissemination via the Internet should increasingly fill this void, there remains a vast and barely-tapped market for high-quality recordings from Radio 3 broadcasts to be issued on CD just as countless BBC television broadcasts are now available in the DVD-Video format.
Warner Classics, like BBC Legends, has evidently spotted this market niche and has issued a batch of discs sourced from Radio 3 tapes from the 2003 and, now, 2004 Proms season. Happily the selection process has tended to favour relative rarities such as Stravinsky’s “Perséphone” and Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” and also this most enterprising disc comprising the world premiere of a BBC commission (Zhou Long), a UK premiere (Saariaho) and a London premiere.
John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto is from 1977 and was written for the New York Philharmonic and its then (and current!) principal clarinettist Stanley Drucker. This is very much a family affair, since not only had Corigliano’s father been the orchestra’s concertmaster between 1943 and 1966 but the young composer had even had some clarinet lessons with Drucker. Thus the work was conceived as a type of concerto for orchestra in which the spotlight is frequently trained on solo musicians within the orchestra whose sound and personality Corigliano had grown up with.
The first movement is cast in ternary form in which A1 is an accompanied cadenza, B is a fast and turbulent interlude and A2 is an expanded ‘double’ of the first cadenza. The cadenza has the soloist darting and scurrying over a sustained string chord that contains the harmonic essence of the movement. Vivid and terse, it makes a striking opening.The second movement ‘Elegy’ was written in memory of the composer’s father and towards the end a solo violin poignantly shadows the clarinet. The tone is brooding and desolate throughout. I liked its restraint and the way it avoids the predictable catharsis of a climax. The finale ‘Antiphonal Toccata’ is urgent and hard-driven with a central plateau of strangely withdrawn rumination. It carries an undertow of a brass chorale which is explicitly revealed near the end as a fragment of a Gabrieli Sonata, no doubt prompted by the use throughout the movement of antiphonal effects from both within and outside the orchestra.
This is a bold and effective work that was well worth reviving. It reminds me of the music of James Macmillan in the way it walks a tightrope between direct emotional communication and the kind of emotive grandstanding that browbeats the listener, staying just on the side of the former. Michael Collins performs miracles of apparently effortless virtuosity in the outer movements in his customary unflappable style but his control of timbral shading and the long line in the slow movement is perhaps even more impressive. First-rate orchestral contribution, too, in the kind of work which showcases the partnership of Slatkin and the BBCSO at its very best.
Zhou Long responded to his Proms commission with a tribute to the Chinese artists and intellectuals who lived through the privations of the Cultural Revolution. In some ways it is more conventionally Western in utterance than other works of Zhou I have encountered, albeit traditional Chinese music is suggested by the near-constant presence of glissandos. It’s a kaleidoscopic work of constantly changing shapes and textures. I found it more compelling rehearing the work on disc. It is precisely such a revaluation that makes recordings of new music so vital. The performance itself sounds accurately realised if somewhat studied; the final fade-out on a mysterious ostinato is captured perfectly though.
Mysterious ostinatos also usher in the first movement (‘Memento mori’) of Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 Orion. This strange but beguiling music gradually accumulates detail until it becomes a dense, saturated cloud not unlike the ‘micropolyphony’ of Ligeti’s 1960s’ scores. The ground-shaking entrance of the organ and majestic re-appearance of the opening is thrilling. The second movement (‘Winter Sky’) opens with a sequence of instrumental solos over icy vapour. The titular image is beautifully realised as a gigantic frozen tableau flecked with glinting points of light. Eventually, the textures thin out and the warmth of a solo cello and tinkling piano seem to invoke the thaw of a salmon-pink dawn. The structural debit of two movements of slow, inert music is repaid by a finale (‘Hunter’) in which a moto perpetuo conveys the thrill of the chase, punctuated by pockets of stasis which glance back to the earlier movements and eventually cap the work in evanescence.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste directs a superb realisation in which the dense layering of what sounds like a huge orchestra mesh perfectly into a single entity; a heroic performance of ambition and commitment. The recorded sound is warm and vivid, although I regret the decision to retain applause; the magical ending of the Saariaho needs silence as its only rejoinder, although I suppose it could have been worse – the man who shouts ‘bravo’ a nanosecond after a performance finishes could have been there. None of this however really detracts from the many and varied pleasures of this outstanding release.