Watery September sunshine and an autumnal air hung over Wigmore Hall, appropriate conditions for a recital of late clarinet sonatas. Though very different in mood, three of the sonatas given by Michael Collins – Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc – were composed shortly before their composers’ deaths. Collins has long reigned as the doyen of British clarinettists, following his teacher, Dame Thea King. He has a firm sound and a more incisive attack than King’s glowing tone. Joined by his regular accompanist Michael McHale, Collins impressed in a beautifully balanced programme.

Michael Collins © Benjamin Ealovega
Michael Collins
© Benjamin Ealovega

There was no easing himself in with a gentle opener, the recital starting with Herbert Howells’ two-movement Clarinet Sonata, composed for Frederick Thurston (King’s husband). The gentle pastoral opening found Collins in unforced, relaxed mode, able to maintain his solid tone even at a high pianissimo. Pianist McHale accompanied with a fine sense of rubato. The second movement is more knotty, with much written for the clarinet’s chalumeau register (named after the instrument's low-voiced forebear), although these passages were still attacked strongly.

Brahms’ Clarinet sonata no.2 in E flat major is one of the glories of the clarinet repertoire, the second of a pair of work written for Richard Mühlfeld who inspired his Indian Summer compositions. Collins’ feathery fingers effortlessly glided through the rising arpeggiated scales, while McHale dreamily pulled back the end of the second subject before the wistful opening theme returns. This gave the movement a rhapsodic air, Collins’ playing perfectly weighted across long phrases. The near-Hungarian Dance second movement was lively, although I question the decision to slow down for the central section: Brahms marks it Sostenuto, which to me shouldn’t imply a change of tempo. A sense of gentle understatement imbued the third movement, a set of variations, although it ended in joyous release.

The second half of the recital was a Gallic affair, but what variety it contained! Debussy’s Première rapsodie is almost the clarinet cousin to the flute’s Syrinx crossed with the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. It could almost describe a dreamy Pan awaking from his afternoon slumber, ending in hot pursuit of Syrinx towards the reed beds. Collins' control over fast trills and sustained high notes was terrific, his staccato not overly aggressive.

Saint-Saëns’ sonata sounds a good deal more conservative than Debussy’s rhapsody, but was composed over a decade later, among a trio of woodwind sonatas written in his final year. Collins brought out the amiable side of the opening theme, drawing parallels to the first movement of the Brahms’ sonata from earlier. The cheeky Allegro animato bounced along gleefully, the tricky leaps between upper and lower registers negotiated cleanly. The slow movement is a curious one – a solemn chorale in the clarinet’s chalumeau against a tolling piano, later repeated two octaves higher. Taken at a swifter pace than usual (and certainly more flowing than Lento might suggest), Collins and McHale made more sense of the movement than I’ve previously heard, the seven broken chords of the central section beautifully spread. Only the slightest hint of a reed blemish marred the skittish finale, though the transition back to the sonata’s opening theme was handled elegantly.

Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is possibly the most Gallic of them all – full of witty, pungent writing with more than a hint of a shrug about it. Swift changes of mood flick to sudden bittersweet melancholy, which makes this work so touching. Collins has long been a celebrated interpreter of this work. He continues to take it at quite a lick – the finale was an ebullient tour de force – but there was also exquisite control over high notes in the more introverted Romanza.

After Poulenc's pyrotchnices, the encore – a John Field nocturne arranged by McHale – helped drift us gently back to earth with Irish balm.