Keen work from stand-ins

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

Michael Collins

                                                                   Michael Collins

This program ran for two nights, the first of them a house-full affair.  Yes, it’s true that the chance of hearing Mozart’s last concerto from a famous performer will bring in a crowd, and it is much easier to fill the Murdoch Hall than the MSO.s much larger usual stamping ground.   Further, the cake was sweetened even more by the addition of Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, a work that can elate you with its sheer bravura of expression  no matter how many times you hear it.

Fortunately, both of these staples enjoyed remarkably clear and vivid renditions, the overall fabric remarkably present, even cutting, in this fine space where every layer of the Beethoven score could be discerned, even if the winds took on greater prominence than usual.    Conductor /soloist Michael Collins made do with fewer desks of strings than are normally involved in the symphony, but those he had at his direction sounded united in their attack and finish.   All the more remarkable, then, that quite a few of them were guests, not regulars.   For example, the player list involved seven visiting violinists, including concertmaster-for-the-night Helena Rathbone from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   That’s an impressive swag when you consider that the two violin groups numbered about 14 in total.   Even better came in the double bass ranks where three out of the four participants were irregulars.

For all that, the symphony sounded imbalanced in the outer movements, especially when the dozen wind operated as a unit.   Passages where the violins held melodic primacy were occasionally lop-sided dynamically and some sentences loaded with scrubbing semiquavers showed us plenty of furious activity going on but, even from close up, it was a case of often filling in mentally for sounds that you knew were there but just didn’t travel with sufficient weight.

A little of this reared up in the Mozart as well, although here the wind component is only half as large as in the Beethoven score.   However,what impressed in this version was the bold elegance of this concerto’s outer Allegro movements which displayed a sinewy vigour that prefigured Beethoven’s early athleticism.   Playing on what I think was a basset clarinet,  Collins produced a compelling reading of this work’s solo line, pliable when it was to the purpose and admirably regular in his bubbling passage work.

In his handling of the well-loved Adagio, Collins demonstrated admirable dynamic control, his piano reprise at bar 60 excellently shaped and in no danger of revealing production flaws.   This security might have had something to do with the extra sounding length of the instrument; whatever the cause – even if it was partly physical – the results made for a beguiling interpretation, one where the low notes stayed where they belonged and where the clarinet could be heard carving its path through the orchestral surrounds, even in the final tutti bars of the finale.   If you were looking for faults, you might have found one at the conclusion to the Adagio, bar 94 to be specific, where the violins gave a sloppy account of their quaver-semiquaver downward slip; but this is nit-picking compared to the band’s confident realization of the work, particularly as their director was, for the most part, engaged on his own business.

It was easy to appreciate the energy that Collins invested in the Beethoven symphony.  He didn’t unveil any surprises or over-stress the dynamic vibrancy that gives three out of the four movements their essential character.   But this wasn’t your usual 7th in which vitality gives way to doggedness; the score radiated that ebullience and galumphing energy that distinguishes it among Beethoven’s major creations while it stands as a vital pillar of optimism and all-too-human light in the pages of European musical achievement.   Even in the minor-key Allegretto, Collins set a forward-looking pace, although the brace of horns pulled the tempo back at the movement’s first fortissimo tutti.

So far, so unexceptionable: a great concerto and a mighty symphony, cornerstones of a conservative decades-old MSO program pattern.   Thursday night’s real attention-grabber came in between with a new clarinet concerto from the organization’s Composer in Residence for 2019, Paul Dean, the composer appearing as soloist under Collins’ direction.   Contrived in two movements, each is further sub-divided into four sections which might become completely discernible on a second hearing; as it was, some parts bled into each other, for which you can’t blame Dean and which became more obvious once you came to the realization that individual segments varied remarkably in length.

Right from the opening, you’re confronted with atmospheric vehemence in the form of a set of slashing quickly arpeggiated chords across the orchestra, almost fully percussive in nature and  intentionally confrontational with the added unsettling colour of the upper strings (all of them?) playing sul ponticello.  Out of a tense unpredictability emerges a cantabile line for the soloist and this juxtaposition of calm and abrupt bursts seems to make up the operating arena for the first movement’s Introduction.

I haven’t been able to find out the work’s orchestration details and from my seat it was difficult to see into the interstices of the assembled ensemble.   Robert Clarke operated from what looked like a drum-kit but one that sounded heavy on drums and short on cymbals; I believe a pair of bass clarinets participated; a contrabassoon was certainly in play; an extra desk was added to each of the string bodies after the chastely populated Mozart.   But the performance’s chief focus, as you’d expect, fell on the solo clarinet which gave a vital and brilliant exhibition, with a particular emphasis on the instrument’s highest reaches, every so often recalling the piercing soprano in alt work of James Morrison.

Following the sort-of-slow Introduction, a sudden vault led to a Scherzetto in 6/8 time (possibly) which in turn transformed into a Burlesque although the dividing line escaped me.  At about this time, Dean initiated a hectic solo over a striking brass/timpani base that gave notice of a transformation into something more urgent than a little scherzo, the texture notable for large washes for brass and woodwind.  Concluding the opening half came an Adagio with slow sustained notes/chords for the strings and a Mahlerian leap to denote the opening to the solo clarinet’s extended melody.   Up to this point, you could have categorized the composer’s vocabulary as atonal but the pizzicato bass line to this Adagio at some points struck me as old-fashioned, reminiscent of a chaconne.   This section rose to its apogee through a piercing high-note from the soloist before a brief resolution.

Movement 2 began with a trademark quirky sonic squiggle, bandied between Dean and various orchestral members; in effect, the rapid action served as a pertinent sonic illustration of this segment’s sub-title, Out of the blue  –  a passage of play climaxing in yet another frantic clarinet solo which took the rest of the ensemble on a Pied Piper chase.  After some time, you became aware that the scheduled Waltz had started, folded into the preceding motion-sickness pages with deceptive deftness.  Actually, it was difficult to find the steps to this dance as the composer didn’t so much shift the rhythmic goalposts as move the emphasis so that your expectations were partly met and just as often side-stepped.   It could have been intended as a deliberate distortion, in the finest Ravel tradition, but the segment’s later pages impressed as long-winded.

Dean’s Cadenza followed the usual rule of pronouncing a set of technical display flourishes, rapid-fire runs peppered with intense high notes which made you wonder at the actual upper range of the instrument.   The following Finale served as an actual coda – no sooner had it broken in on the Cadenza than it was over.   This brought an end to a concerto that showed individuality of voice, a superlative command of the solo instrument’s resources – even if you were left wondering if another player could have brought the composer’s vehemence and hard-edged brilliance to the task – and a rigour of development and resolution that I, for one, found engrossing.

Will we hear this new score again?   It’s safe to say: not with the regularity that applies to its companion pieces on this night.   But Dean’s new work has an immediacy of impact and what can only be described as a generosity of expression that drags it out of the institutional graveyard of many another clarinet concerto of these times.   I had the general impression that its first audience was nonplussed by its processes, particularly its abrupt conclusion; still, Dean was warmly applauded if possibly more for his voluble virtuosity than for the strident power of his score’s most compelling moments.