Spot the odd one out: Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, a clarinet concerto by Mozart, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and On a piece of Tapestry by Simcock (2014). In a programme dominated by late 18th century and early 19th century works, the choice of young Welsh composer Gwilym Simcock might have seemed a little out of place. However, if we consider that the programming reflected The City of London Sinfonia's current season of exploring “creative responses to the Natural and Supernatural which touches on enlightenment, mysticism and pastoralism to present day spirituality” then Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A is the odd one out. It also turned out to be the highlight of the concert.

Michael Collins © Ben Ealovega
Michael Collins
© Ben Ealovega

There was a bright and lively feel to Collins’ interpretation of the overture to The Magic Flute. The ominous atmosphere created by the opening three chords, representing Masonic symbolism, was immediately dispersed by some joyful string passagework. While there was crisp articulation here with clearly delineated dynamics, there was a harshness to the violins’ tone which was disappointing.

Simcock’s On a Piece of Tapestry was commissioned by the CLS and tonight’s performance represented the première. So new was it that Collins, who was both soloist and conductor here, quipped about organising its loose pages correctly in his short preamble. According to the composer’s own notes the piece “weaves together two poignant poems (...) involves elements of textural improvisation for the strings and a fluid, lyrical clarinet part”. It opened with softly moaning strings, with a clarinet melody soaring over the top. Throughout the work, there was a hint of jazz both in its rhythm and style before dissolving into shifting tonal centres. Not too surprising, given that Simcock, as pianist and composer straddles both the jazz and classical genres. The golden tone of Collins’ clarinet made for pleasant listening here and there was good dialogue between clarinettist and principal violinist in the middle section. At one point, Collins lifted his left hand up to conduct the cellos while continuing to play the clarinet. There was a beautiful peaceful ending which perfectly encapsulated the poem’s last line: “And swelling into rapture from this sigh”.

Before launching into Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, Collins explained that he was now playing a modern reconstruction of the basset clarinet, joking that it was also known as the “beast” since it was so difficult to play. If it was, then there was not the least sign of it as Collins played this concerto with aplomb. Right from the outset the music was imbued with humour and charm. Collins’ playing was highly expressive demonstrating both seamless legato phrasing and mercurial staccato filigree. As performer-director, Collins conducted with expressive eyebrow movements which the orchestra responded to with great sensitivity as the music sparkled on. There was a deliciously dramatic rallentando in the first movement just before the recapitulation which left us hanging on to every note he played. The second movement Adagio showed Collins at his most sublime. Here he revealed Mozart’s music unmediated by his own ego; so simply played, so highly expressive, the epitome of letting the music ‘speak for itself’. Reaching from the depths of the basset clarinet to its pellucid heights, music poured forth like molten gold. In the recapitulation, the strings were exquisitely soft in their accompaniment. The third movement was a jolly, breezy affair, with quick changes of register and effervescent dialogue between soloist and orchestra, brimming over with good humour. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony occupied the entire second half. Programmatic pieces were all the rage when Beethoven wrote this symphony and while there are titles for each of the five movements, Beethoven never intended them to be merely musical depictions of nature : “all tone painting loses its value if it is pushed too far in instrumental music,” he declared. Collins’ vision for this symphony was highly expressive imbued with plenty of rustic charm. The first movement was full of cheery goodwill as the music gracefully flowed. Much praise goes to the cello and double section which provided fine depth of sound both in this movement and throughout the symphony. Collins allowed the music in second movement to prattle on simply and naturally, conducting in an almost minimalist fashion. Some tuning issues in the first violins somewhat marred this pleasant pastoral scene. Rustic good fun was the order of the day for the “Happy Gathering of Country Folk” and here the string sound was suitably raucous, capturing the unsophisticated country dance in the Trio section. What the CLS lacked in fullness of sound in the “Thunderstorm” it made up for it with its vehemence. Collins’ relaxed approach to the “Shepherd’s song” worked well with immaculate phrasing and highly expressive playing from the whole orchestra.