Collins Plays, Conducts Vaughan Williams & Finzi

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5. FINZI: Clarinet Concerto / Philharmonia Orch.; Michael Collins, cl/cond / Bis SACD-2367

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony both delighted and puzzled listeners. Essentially melodic and warm, it made a stark contrast to his edgier Fourth. Some welcomed this as a return of the “old” Vaughan Williams while others puzzled over such a melodic work in the midst of the Second World War. But Vaughan Williams had poured himself into a number of relief efforts during the war, including the safe passage of German-Jewish refugees; he saw this symphony as a means of providing some hope and uplifting of spirits during a very dark time. Eventually he would write his even more angst-ridden Sixth Symphony, a powerful piece which is still not played as often as it should be.

My favorite recording of this piece is the one by Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra, but in this new recording conductor Michael Collins makes a strong case for his reading as well. And of course, Bis’ SACD sound is far superior to the old Barbirolli version. The modern-day Philharmonia plays extremely well under his guidance, and despite its generally genial surface Collins manages to bring out the shades of gray and darkness that the composer put into it. I was especially pleased by the bright playing of the horns, something that has deteriorated in recent decades in other orchestras.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling movement in the work is the Scherzo. Despite its brisk tempo, this is clearly not a jolly scherzo but a somewhat dark and muted one. Wind figures leap out of the shadows of the muted strings to play semi-grotesque figures, suggesting an undercurrent of menace within a purportedly happy front. The harmony, too, shifts back and forth between the major and the minor, and there are a surprising number of long-held notes and chords that belie its scherzo-like qualities.

Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is a work of contradictions: the lyrical, placid melodic lines, particularly those written for the soloist, contrast with the sharper, more dramatic orchestral scoring. Finzi also moves the harmonic base around a bit, shifting the harmonies underlying the orchestra—but, again, not those underlying the clarinet. Collins has a bright tone, which I liked very much, and his phrasing on this instrument is as smooth and unruffled as that of his conducting.

If I seem a little less than enthusiastic, however, it is because in many spots within both the symphony and the concerto Collins is a bit too smooth for my taste. As slow as Barbirolli’s conducting was, he brought out more edge in the Fifth Symphony than this, but if you are looking for a superb-sounding recording of these scores, look no further.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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