These Wigmore Hall lunchtime streams are proving a real tonic, seeing the return of live music-making to the UK, albeit to an audience currently watching at home. It helps that John Gilhooly’s address book is stuffed with artists who live within easy reach and recent weeks have featured some true house favourites. Clarinettist Michael Collins is a trusty Wigmore regular, so it was no surprise to see him invited along, this time with his pianist collaborator Michael McHale, for lunchtime fare as French as Camembert, smeared over a generous slice of earthy German Pumpernickel.

Michael McHale and Michael Collins
© Wigmore Hall

As Camille Saint-Saëns advanced into old age, he grew increasingly conservative. One would never guess that his Clarinet Sonata was composed as late as 1921 (the year of his death), a decade after Debussy’s much more radical Première Rhapsodie. Collins and McHale opened at a comfortable tempo full of tender ease. The Allegro animato second movement then raced along. Collins sounded in fine fettle; lockdown obviously hasn’t hindered his nimble fingerwork, although there were occasional reed blemishes that betrayed understandable spots of rust. His chalumeau register was big and ripe in the slow movement though, before the very poignant two-octave shift, the melody repeated at a veiled pianissimo, like a distant echo around the hall. McHale’s shaping of the postlude here was extremely sensitive. The finale rattled along at high speed, with dizzying chromatic descents, all jubilant fun before Saint-Saëns plunges us back into the haunting return of the sonata’s opening theme. 

Although the first movement of the Grand Duo Concertant is in sonata form, Carl Maria von Weber decided against calling it a sonata given the virtuosic nature of the writing, designed to show off the brilliance of his clarinettist friend, Heinrich Baermann. Collins attacked the opening with effortless leaps between registers and clean staccatos. The slow movement is essentially an operatic aria without words, long-breathed and beautifully controlled here, while Collins and McHale chased each other round the stage – not literally! – in the impish Rondo finale, ending in a breathless gallop. 

Like Saint-Saëns’, Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata was composed right at the end of his life, but there is no sense here of a composer mellowing with age. The writing is highly dramatic, pivoting from wild impudence to intense introversion in a split second. It’s long been a favourite work for Collins and he tucked into it greedily, with pugnacious opening statements leading to a serene central section where the music seemed to float effortlessly. Early on in the Romanza the soloist is instructed to play très doux et mélancolique, and that bittersweet quality really hit home watching Collins perform to a (nearly) empty hall. Strange times. 

Collins has always taken the Allegro con fuoco swiftly, but this was as fast as I can ever remember hearing it played, well under the 3-minute mark, full of rascally impudence and perfectly exhilarating. 

After all that excitement, something calming was needed to avoid indigestion. McHale supplied the musical Gaviscon with his own arrangement of the Irish lullaby, My Lagan Love, Collins lavishing it with his typically warm tone and liquid phrasing.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.