Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 & Finzi: Clarinet Concerto

Michael Collins, Philharmonia Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 &  Finzi: Clarinet Concerto
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Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 &  Finzi: Clarinet Concerto

Michael Collins, 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.


He hath given me rest by His sorrow and life by His death. – Bunyan

Written above the third movement of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, Romanza, these words are deceptively multilayered. Not just pertinent to the years in which the piece was written (1938–1943, the height of World War II), but also to Vaughan Williams’s own fitful work on his opera based upon Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, they are supposed to represent the emotions of the music itself. This is just a snapshot of how this piece is strangely complex throughout its four movements. Lush with the string sound we often associate with the Vaughan Williams style, Michael Collins and the Philharmonia Orchestra bring this piece to life in Collins’s recorded conducting debut.

Anyone who has had an even passing interest in the clarinet will most likely have heard of Michael Collins. Widely considered one of the best clarinettists in the world, he has been working as a conductor, performer and teacher at the Royal College for many years. Leading from the soloist position for the Finzi Clarinet Concerto, he manages to use all his skills to show off Finzi’s particular compositional style. Finzi and Vaughan Williams were contemporaries and friends and it’s fascinating to hear passing moments of each other’s styles in these two works. This album is delightful, soulful and well worth adding to your collection.

Kate Rockstrom is a friend of Readings.

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