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La clarinette parisienne - Collins / Ogawa

La clarinette parisienne - Collins / Ogawa

BIS  BIS 2497

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Debussy: Premiere Rhapsodie
Widor: Introduction et Rondo
Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Messager: Solo de concours
Rabaud: Solo de concours
Poulenc: Sonata for Two Clarinets*, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

Michael Collins, Sérgio Pires* (clarinets)
Noriko Ogawa (piano)


Up until around 1900 the clarinet repertoire was dominated by music from the German-speaking lands, largely due to the influence of three outstanding clarinettists. Inspired by Anton Stadler, Heinrich Barmann and Richard Muhlfeld respectively, Mozart, Weber and Brahms composed some of the finest clarinet works ever written. But especially after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French cultural establishment became increasingly concerned with cultivating a national voice of its own, and Michael Collins's new release is a reminder of this.

The works recorded here all date from the last years of the 19th century and afterwards, and it is striking that four of them (Debussy, Widor, Messager and Rabaud) were written as competition pieces for the Paris Conservatoire - the institution which played such a decisive role in shaping French musical life. But even though they were commissioned for educational purposes there is nothing academic about them: from Debussy's seductive Rhapsodie to Messager's light-heartedly brilliant Solo de concours there is instead a definite French - maybe even Parisian - quality to them. This also applies to the Clarinet Sonata by Saint-Saens, composed in the last year of his life but full of charm and courtly irony.

Closing the disc are two works from either end of Francis Poulenc's life. While the brief Sonata for two clarinets from 1918 is pure and cheeky fun, the 1962 Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is more conflicted emotionally, as indicated by the first movement's tempo marking Allegro tristamente. Throughout the greater part of the program, Collins is partnersred by Noriko Ogawa, whose pianism has won her particular acclaim in French repertoire, with Sergio Pires making a guest appearance in Poulenc's clarinet duo.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 25, 2021

One goes, another joins. BIS is not the first label to lose a long-time artist. It must have been a particularly sad moment if that someone had been “discovered and nurtured to world fame” (Bissie’s own words). Let me offer some consolation. It is twofold: The Classic FM Magazine of July 2009 and this new release. What about the magazine? Simple. Listing the 2009 top 5 clarinettists, Michael Collins comes first, with Martin Fröst in fifth place. Taking this with a pinch of salt, as a certain degree of British chauvinism cannot be excluded, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and that is where ‘La clarinette Parisienne’ enters the scene. Bon appetit!

Last year, BIS released Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 - Collins with Collins taking pole position as the conductor of a wholly convincing Vaughan William 5 and as soloist in a wonderfully shaded Finzi clarinet concerto. In the comment section Brydon_music expressed the hope “… that BIS might do some more work with Collins…”. Whether or not this prompted BIS to get this British Star Clarinettist to record some of the ‘hard to find’ French clarinet repertoire, I do not know. But here it is and it’s a jolly successful recording at that! (more chauvinism at the other side of the Channel? Maybe!) Take a listen for yourself.

Though invented in Germany (Johann Christoph Denner), the origin of the clarinet can be retraced to a French mediaeval instrument called ‘chalumeau’. Interesting though this may be, it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to find a French composer having composed a clarinet concerto. I know of only two who did: Darius Milhaud (1941) and Jean Françaix (1967), and ‘à la limite’ we may count in Claude Debussy, with his orchestrated version (1911) of the ‘Première rhapsodie pour clarinette et piano’ (as played on this disc). Despite the chamber section faring somewhat better, one wonders whether the absence is occasioned by a lack of interest, judged to be too German or because of a clear French preference for the flute over the clarinet? All good questions indeed, which I will gladly leave to more experienced people than I.

If there is (or was) a ‘French School’, it was a group of composers centred around and closely connected to the Paris conservatoire. The liner notes mention - not without interest - that four out of six works “were written as examination or competition pieces for the Paris Conservatoire.” In other words, not specifically for public performance. My edition of Larousse de la Musique’ (1982) does mention Debussy’s orchestrated version but not the original rhapsodie for clarinet and piano. In such a contradicting environment, it is remarkable that some of the most important manufacturers of wind instruments, Buffet Crampon & Cie. and Henri Selmer-Paris. are located in the French capital and that their clarinets are used all over the world. One of Buffet Crampon top clients was a certain Benny Goodman! So, there is a clarinet link of sorts with Paris.

The reason for my dwelling so long on the subject is to underscore the importance of this BIS release. it gives, at least for the greater part, a ‘hard to come by’ survey of French clarinet compositions that were in origin not meant for public presentation, making it, therefore, unique. For that reason alone it ought to be a must for clarinet players.

With this out of the way, let me turn to what we are here for: The music, or rather ‘eating the pudding’ dished up in the first paragraph. For this recording, Collins had to be paired with an equally accomplished pianist. For this purpose, Noriko Ogawa, whose complete set of Debussy’s piano music (BIS) scored high with The Gramophone, seemed a logical partner. And rightly so. She certainly isn’t the shy accompanist hired with the sole purpose of letting the soloist shine. Her contribution is an essential part of the combined effort.

The Rhapsodie being an examination piece, it is clear that Debussy has included as many pitfalls as possible for the poor student to show what he’s worth. In these first eight minutes it becomes already crystal clear that Collins does not only pass, but also eminently surpasses his ‘exam’ by any virtuoso standard; flying over the technical obstacles, whilst skillfully accentuating the ‘dreamy’ elements Debussy is so famous for. And with similar magic mastery handling tone and dynamic differences in Widor’s showpiece. As I suggested elsewhere, the quality of an instrument alone, In Collins case a Yamaha Artist Model SE, does not make a top-rated player. It demands someone knowing how to get the best out of his instrument, like switching effortlessly from pp to ff and from the lowest to the highest notes without clipping the listener’s ears.

My personal favourite is Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for clarinet and piano. A lovely piece of work, despite a sombre third movement. Together with Norika Ogawa he ably and serenely builds up his credentials as an accomplished French tone enchanter, thereby posthumously assisting Saint-Saëns in his effort to “giving seldom considered instruments (in France!) an opportunity to be heard”.

Like Widor's, I had never heard of André Messager’s and Henri Rabaud’s competition pieces. Collin dances cheerfully through Messager’s ‘Solo de concours’, a virtuoso demonstration piece with little musical content. Rabaud is more conventional, but demands from the clarinettist to use all the technical tricks the instrument allows. Collins obliges as though he has more than 10 fingers.

From an artistic perception the best part is saved for the end, be it in totally different aspects. Poulenc’s brilliant double clarinet ear teaser, where Collins is joined by Sérgio Pires, solo clarinettist of the Musikkollegium Winterthur (one of Switzerland's best regional formations), precedes Poulenc’s short but strikingly confrontational Clarinet Sonata, giving Collins and Ogawa a chance to balance opposing sentiments, the ‘tristesse’ of the first movement with high spirits of the final, drawing a compelling programme to a close.

Saying that Collins and his supportive partner, Ogawa, have succeeded their exam with flying colours sounds patronizing, but it is by all means true. The pudding tasted even better than expected.

Soundwise, I liked the perfect blend between piano and clarinet, both engineered to the best ability of the medium.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France

Copyright © 2021 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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