The playing of Richard Mühlfeld inspired Johannes Brahms to come out of self-imposed early retirement to compose four of the greatest clarinet works. The indefatigable Michael Collins very nearly did a clean sweep in a single recital in the latest instalment of Stephen Hough’s Brahms residency at Wigmore Hall. He performed the trio with Hough before Christmas, but the two sonatas and the quintet still made for a packed programme. And just when you thought Collins could pause to draw breath, he played Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 5 in F major “Frühling”, transcribed by Hough for clarinet and string quartet.

Michael Collins © Benjamin Ealovega
Michael Collins
© Benjamin Ealovega

Brahms’ pair of clarinet sonatas are often given the tag “autumnal” – with good reason – yet Collins and Hough didn’t sink into misty-eyed “mellow fruitfulness” too much. Certainly there were wistful moments, but more of a reflective glance before continuing with contented ease. Collins’ rich, rounded tone was in evidence right from the start of the F minor sonata, fully playing up to the first movement’s appassionata marking before floating its dreamy close tenderly. The slow movement went at an unsentimental Andante pace – purposeful rather than mawkish – while the Allegretto grazioso danced elegantly, unable to resist breaking out into rustic high spirits. It was that sense of joy which infused the finale, Hough in playful mood, smiling across at his partner.

There is less outright joy in the more nostalgic E flat sonata, but this was still wonderfully amiable music-making. The Allegro appassionato second movement was given a Hungarian Dance-like swing – Brahms’ thick piano writing given plenty of drive – its central sostenuto section maintaining the tempo, although Hough held back at its end to launch the recapitulation with an athletic pounce. The finale, a set of variations, drew out Collins’ lyrical tone before an exuberant close.

Each half of the recital paired a sonata with a work for clarinet and strings, bringing the fine young Castalian String Quartet to the stage. Hough’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata is unfussy and true to its violin sonata original. The violin part transfers neatly to the clarinet(s) even if it sometimes lies rather high. Here was Beethoven without the scowl, revelling in spring sunshine and birdsong, cooing doves in the Adagio, fun and games in the off-the-beat Scherzo. The Castalians offered Collins the most engaging dialogue, the finale full of bucolic delights.

But it was in Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet where they hit sublime heights. The strings had a burnished glow – perfect for that sense of mature ripeness – but it was the variety of colours they employed which impressed. The sparing violin and viola tone at the start of the Adagio allowed Collins to creep in softly, but the mood soon breaks, the clarinet offering a soliloquy sounding like the sort of riff a Hungarian gypsy would play in a folk ensemble; the strings sighed, eventually adding fiery tremolando support as the clarinet soared off on its flight of fancy. The Andante swung along before the finale – another set of variations – shone with lilting Viennese charm. Gloomy old Brahms? No, this was Brahms revelling in October sunshine, drinking in the colours – and doubtless the fruits of the wine harvest – around him. Sheer bliss.

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