Michael Collins seems to be stuck in a rut. This is his third recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Why?
I suppose I could stop writing right here, because you probably know exactly where I'm going with this. But since I've started, I'll provide a little more detail on this release.
Michael Collins's first stab at the Mozart Concerto was, oddly, with Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra for DG in 2000. I have not heard it, as that seemed to be a dubious team for Mozart, and more importantly because its coupling is rather absurd - a transcription for clarinet of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. This release was a real head-scratcher.
Jump ahead 13 years and Collins records the Mozart again - this time with the terrific Swedish Chamber Orchestra for Chandos. And it is superb - one of the best performances of it I've heard. Not only that, the couplings are equally fabulous - Copland's Concerto (superbly idiomatic, jazzy and very exciting), plus a new work by Elena Kats-Chernin, Ornamental Air, which is really fantastic. This Chandos release has been my go-to for both the Mozart and the Copland Clarinet Concertos, replete with truly excellent clarinet playing, orchestral support and superlative sound.
So I was perplexed to see the Mozart showing up yet again from Michael Collins, in 2022 on BIS. After such a successful recording just 9 years prior, why take it up again - for the 3rd time?
Seeing it coupled this time around with the same composer's Clarinet Quintet (which Collins hadn't recorded before) sort of makes sense and I ordered it anyway. I was especially intrigued that the program also includes a new concerto written especially for him by cellist (and composer) Richard Birchall (b.1984), which looked very interesting.
I started with the Birchall and found it to be extremely accomplished and expertly orchestrated. The first movement, Metamorphosis, begins most promisingly with a palpable sense of anticipation. Hints of Copland's Clarinet Concerto appear along the way before the central Allegro takes flight. The energy builds with increasing momentum and some engaging interplay between soloist and orchestra ensues. I thought the occasional clarinet lip-slurs and growls were perhaps a bit overdone and out of character for the piece, but the imaginative and energetic orchestral contribution countered it.
The slow movement, Still Life, is a melancholy interlude which is perhaps a tad overlong. Thematic motifs, while melodic, are not quite melodious or musically memorable. It doesn't help that Collins's lowest register is not terribly beautiful in tone - there is an odd "honk" to it down there throughout. However, the colorful orchestration compensates, and some curious string glissandi and flute flutter-tonguing caught my attention. The finale, Impossible Construction, takes off in a motoric, perpetual-motion way. Its rhythmic, driving energy is instantly engaging and the jazz flavoring compelling. It sounds to be quite challenging to play and Michael Collins accommodates its difficulties with ease and bravura.
Taken as a whole, the work is interesting, colorfully orchestrated and musically rewarding - if ultimately not particularly memorable.
Anxious to get to the Mozart, which is the primary interest for me, I started with the Quintet. Sadly it is disappointing. Despite a sweetness to the string playing and some attractive ornamentation here and there, it ultimately is rather routine. Tempos are unremarkable and some musical point-making, particularly in the 1st movement, is a little fussy. I longed for more spontaneity, variety and unbridled joy in the playing.
Hoping matters would improve in the Concerto, alas, it is more of the same - routine and uninspired. The orchestra plays with a relaxed sweetness, but curiously sounds a little self-conscious about it. And I hear a bit of unsteadiness in some of the clarinet passagework as well - less rhythmically precise and crisply articulated than I'm used to hearing. It is an efficient read-through but precious little more.
At this point I was beginning to wonder if I had overrated Michael Collins's previous Mozart recording for Chandos. Revisiting the 2013 Chandos CD, one instantly hears the Swedish Chamber Orchestra usher in a fresher, much more crisply executed orchestral exposition, with more spontaneous and joyfully expressive playing. There is also a delightful graciousness and exquisite musical phrasing which the Philharmonia Orchestra can't match in the later reading. And at the clarinet entry, there is crisper articulation and a sense of joy and involvement not experienced on the BIS. Also evident is a lovely legato singing quality largely missing in the 2022 reading. Tempos seem livelier in all 3 movements, despite individual timings being surprisingly similar.
Furthermore, as good as the recorded sound is on BIS, it is even better on Chandos. There is a luscious, airy, atmospheric acoustic on Chandos which is not only extremely pleasing, but expertly defined and superbly detailed as well. (It is interesting to consider the Chandos is CD-only while the BIS is a multi-channel SACD.)
Going back to the BIS one more time, it just sounds a little "mushy" in comparison with regard to articulation and slightly sluggish tempos. And while it is musical, it is less spontaneous and involving. The 3rd movement Rondo fares best, but there needed to be more life and energy in the Allegro 1st. (The same goes for the Quintet as well.)
The inclusion of the concerto here seems to be a producer's logic for filling up the disc. However, with a contemporary concerto already on the program, there is every reason to believe another concerto other than the Mozart would have been appropriate and infinitely more rewarding. Even another chamber work would have been most welcomed.
Incidentally, Collins plays the basset-clarinet (with its extended lower register down to a low C), on all three recordings.
In sum, I am glad to have heard Richard Birchall's splendid Concerto for Basset Clarinet. But sadly, I'm not sure it alone is enough to justify the purchase of this disc.