CRUSELL Clarinet Concertos (Collins)
I imagine I am not alone in having first been introduced to the name and music of Bernhard Henrik Crusell by the 17-year-old Emma Johnson. When she played Crusell’s F minor Concerto (No 2) for the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1984 it was a bold and unconventional choice that made many of us wonder why we had never heard such an attractive work before – and why it had been a teenager, rather than a high-profile seasoned pro, who had the imagination to revive it. Johnson, memorably, won the competition and subsequently recorded the concerto and its two companions presented here.
Crusell (1775-1838) ranks high in the history of Finnish music but not elsewhere – until, that is, the last decades of the 20th century. He was not given an entry in the first edition of Grove or indeed in most other music dictionaries until the 1980s. None of his works has ever received a performance at the BBC Proms. Things are changing. As a performer, Crusell became the first person to perform Mozart’s divine Concerto following its publication in 1802, and also gave the first public performance of the Kegelstatt Trio. Chandos’s first-rate booklet (Colin Lawson) reveals that ‘more than 50 extant concert reviews [of Crusell] yield not a single negative comment’. As a composer for the clarinet, he is an almost exact contemporary of Weber and Spohr. His three concertos were composed between 1803 and 1812. Their themes, generally, may not be as memorable as Weber’s, the orchestration no more than craftsmanlike, but are there any other clarinet concertos before the end of the 19th century which show off the virtuoso and lyrical qualities of the clarinet with more exuberance and grace? In the words of the great Jack Brymer, ‘while there is nothing startlingly new in what he has to say, Crusell is always saying something worthy of our attention’.
All three works have been recorded several times since Johnson’s captivating ASV discs (11/86, 11/89, 9/91), though this may well be the first time that the soloist in all three has also directed the orchestra. Collins is an experienced conductor in his own right but it takes an extraordinary degree of skill (and breath control!) to play such technically demanding solo parts while simultaneously leading the players. However, I think he achieves better results than those with the benefit of two free hands and a baton. Even before he has blown a note, you will notice the exemplary balance between the different sections in the opening tutti of the E flat Concerto (No 1). It is a feature of this entire recording, quite apart from the precision and spirit throughout that he wins from his collaborators.
As to his role as soloist, I can only say that Collins’s first entry made me smile – and kept it there for the entire length of the disc: the opening flourish is a rapid upward tonic arpeggio executed with such gleeful, impudent fluency that you simply want to applaud. It sets the tone for the next 74 minutes of (literally) breathtaking bravura notable not merely for Collins’s sprightly athleticism but the amazing range of dynamics and colours he produces – and all without ever interfering with the long line and seemingly spontaneous phrasing. His faultless clarity and articulation, especially at some of the speeds he adopts, are things to marvel at.
If you are of a mind to dismiss all this as mere froth and bubble, turn to the slow movements. You will recall that Mozart thought the clarinet the closest of all instruments to the human voice, and Collins here turns his instrument into a silky-toned singer – and with a far more refined and liquid sonority than, say, the young Emma Johnson. His tempos, incidentally, are consistently livelier than hers as well, for example 5'22" as opposed to her 6'05" in the catchy rondo finale of the F minor Concerto, best known of the nine movements.
The disc concludes with a daredevil set of variations on a popular Swedish song (translated as ‘Dear boy, empty the glass’) by one Olof Ålström. ‘It combines’, writes Lawson, ‘a certain wit with a level of virtuosity that makes severe technical demands on the soloist.’ It is also great fun. If you’re still hesitating, this should tip you over the edge.
Among other Crusell crusaders are Martin Fröst, Kari Kriikku and Karl Leister. They must all now yield to the newcomer, an altogether remarkable tour de force from the magnificent Michael Collins, another gold-standard Chandos recording to add to his earlier Weber, Stanford and Finzi concerto benchmarks for the label.