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Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 - Collins

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 - Collins

BIS  BIS-2367

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5
Finzi: Clarinet Concerto

Michael Collins, clarinet and conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra


The distinguished clarinettist Michael Collins has in recent years also gained recognition as a conductor, appearing with eminent orchestras across the world. The present disc sees his recording debut as a conductor of symphonic repertoire, from which he has chosen Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony - one of the composer's best-loved works. Written during the Second World War and with its symphonic predecessor displaying a convulsive fury and desolation, the Fifth is surprisingly serene and pastoral. Vaughan Williams dedicated it 'without permission' to Jean Sibelius - who in his diary described his impression on first hearing the work as 'a caress from a summer world.'

On the present disc, Vaughan Williams is followed by his younger colleague and friend Gerald Finzi, who he once advised to write a symphony: 'They're ever so easy'. Finzi was not convinced, and remains known as a composer of primarily vocal music, but among his few instrumental works is a Concerto for Clarinet, the instrument widely regarded as the most voice-like of all. For this, Michael Collins reverts to his customary role as soloist, conducting the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra from the clarinet.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 30, 2020

Clarinettist Michael Collins is not the first, nor will he be the last instrumentalist to turn to conducting and some have become very successful indeed. His credentials as star clarinettist don’t need any further laurels. As regards his conducting: From 2010 till 2018 he stood at the helm of the City of London Sinfonia, once Richard Hickox stepping stone to world recognition. Will Collins follow in his footsteps?

Before going any further, I would like to share some personal views on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ fifth symphony, views that are not generally supported but are based on what I hear and what I feel in relation to events at the time. Its serene character is seen by many as an expression of typical English pastoral life. But is that so? There is no programme attached to it, leaving it up to the performer and the listener to interpret the score. It does open the door for diverging views. In mine it is much more than pastoral, for me, it is about a passionate statement hidden in familiar British flavour. Composed between 1938 and 1943 there must have been emotional interaction with real-life developments (“fear in a city at war."). Once accepted the idea of this symphony, in essence, being a ‘war symphony’, though in contrasting language than that in his fourth or even sixth, one listens with different ears. And more intense, as far as I’m concerned.

The manuscript score carries this quote: “Upon this land stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said: ““He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death””. (from a Christian allegory written by John Bunyan). On his explicit request, the quote does not appear in the score as published. Was it to avoid giving insight into what his sensitive mind moved and what he hoped to communicate?

The opening movement, largely scored before the beginning of the Second World War, starts with an ominous horn call, a sound reminiscent of a distant air-raid warning, as though VW - who served in the First World War under extremely difficult circumstances as a paramedic in the Royal Army Medical Corps – wanted to share his premonition of the destructive upheaval about to come once more over Europe. And all along the Symphony one perceives occasional undercurrents of desolate sadness, evolving into resignation and ultimate triumph. Seen in that light, I find it hard to call this symphony 'a caress from a summer world’, like Sibelius, the dedicatee did.

In the second movement (Scherzo; presto misterioso), arguably inspired by British folk tunes, the music shudders whilst tunes seem out of step. ‘Rhythmical Confusion’, according to some scholars, without attaching more than technical innovation to it. I find it disturbing. It’s only in the third movement (Romanza), that Vaughan Williams seeks resignation and peace, with melodies borrowed from ongoing work on his opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’; in an effort to stem the turmoil in Britain’s war-battered world? The third movement is considered to be the core of the symphony, the turning point, with which I agree insofar as the following fourth movement is seen as the summit of the spiritual magic of the Fifth symphony.

At its premiere in 1943 (Proms) it was enthusiastically received. And the reason seems clear. In this final movement, one feels that any residual desolation makes way for an uplifting, triumphant mood with a pronounced ‘we shall overcome’ factor. The mood that has given the British people so often the moral strength to withstand and overcome foreign oppression. If this has been Vaughan Williams’ intention, then, by all means, he has succeeded.

So far, and among other superb recordings, notably Bernard Haitink’s extraordinary and deeply gripping account (1994, LPO, Warner Classics), my favourite Hi-Res release is Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5, Tallis Fantasia - Spano (now mostly sold out) as Spano gives it the emotional grandeur it merits. In comparison, I was unexpectedly impressed by the way Collins took up the challenge. Similar in timings, but more outspoken in expression. Music conveys its story in the way it is interpreted. And whether or not Collins has exactly the same doubts about the real intentions hidden in the score, he did hit a nerve and kept me hooked for close to 40 minutes.

Collins’ Romanza goes a whole step further than being sunny and pastoral. It starts with a dark and brooding foundation against which the English horn solo ignites a message that gradually moves from lament and crying outburst to opening arms of consolation and resignation. A wonderful reading, developing further in the final movement (Passacaglia) to what was most needed in those days: Courage.

I think it’s wrong to suggest that if a conductor has such fine players at his disposal, it facilitates a lot. However, without sharing a vision, the result risks being routine; playing the notes observing all markings, etc. This is clearly not the case here. Collins has a vision, as well as the ability to get it across, proving his rising star as a conductor. His reading of Vaughan William’s fifth Symphony surely is as good as it gets and worthy of being on the shortlist of anyone wanting to delve deeper into British 20th century symphonic repertoire.

In Gerald Finzi’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, Collins excels in his double hatted role of soloist and conductor. A genial move from Robert von Bahr, as this popular concerto was thus far desperately missing in the Hi-Res catalogue. Collins recorded it to great acclaim for Chandos and with this account on SACD Collins & Collins demonstrates a similar affection with this concerto. Written in 1949, and therefore well before composers were often required to innovate and experiment (and sometimes into absurdity) in order to be taken as ‘real artists’, the music is accessible and even blessed with a fair dose of romanticism in the second movement. As a follow-up, It fits in well with VW fifth with its nostalgic power in the first and optimism in the final movement.

The recorded quality is up to the usual BIS standard, though in the symphony the Telarc definition is superior. However, if you want the Clarinet concerto, BIS is the preferred choice.

Copyright © 2020 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by breydon_music - August 29, 2020 (1 of 2)

This is a beautiful record from BIS which I commend to everyone. I already have 2 very good SACD performances of this symphony and will keep both for their couplings, particularly Spano's lovely "Serenade to Music". However Collins' reading, with the Philharmonia in splendid form and a Robert Suff production which is absolutely right for the music, is a cut above them both. I think that, of the first 6 symphonies, this one is the most difficult to bring off. At first sight it is a product of the pastoral, folk music inspired VW, but actually it inhabits the more complex world of Symphonies 4 and 6. Collins is clearly right inside the music and his reading is compelling from first to last. Add to this a lovely reading of Finzi's melodic concerto, and this disc is a winner. Listening here also to how good the Philharmonia sound made me do a search on this site - 23 pages of their recordings came up but almost all are historic remasters. It's good to hear that the 21st century orchestra is in such good form! Is it too much to hope that BIS might do some more work with Collins and the orchestra? Robert sometimes has a way of teasing us with such things - when his Pressler recital was issued I waited with baited breath for more - but I'm still waiting!

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - August 30, 2020 (2 of 2)

Saw your comment after having published my review. Glad to see that I'm not the only one with a diverging view. There is indeed much more than meets the eye.