Mozart & Birchall: Clarinet Concertos
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Mozart & Birchall: Clarinet Concertos

Michael Collins, Wigmore Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra, Robin O'Neill

The two concertos performed here by Michael Collins and the Philharmonia Orchestra were both intended for a specific player - Mozart composed his for Anton Stadler and Richard Birchall for Michael Collins himself. Both works - as well as Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet - were also written for a particular instrument: the basset clarinet, a slightly larger and deeper clarinet than the one in A which soon after Mozart had written his concerto became the standard. At the very core of the clarinet repertoire, the two works by Mozart have until recently been played on the A clarinet, with necessary adjustments being made to the solo part. Nowadays, however, they are more and more often performed on the instrument they were intended for.

Richard Birchall, in his Concerto for Basset Clarinet, also makes the most of the basset clarinet’s extended range, for instance in the third movement, Impossible Construction. That movement, and indeed the whole work, is inspired by the artwork of M. C. Escher and its combination of surreal elements and mathematical precision. With the two concertos, Michael Collins continues his long-standing collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which includes an acclaimed recording on BIS of works by Vaughan Williams and Finzi. For the Clarinet Quintet he has invited his colleagues from the Wigmore Soloists, the chamber ensemble that he leads together with Isabelle van Keulen.

Review

It is an interesting concept writing a new, contemporary work for an old instrument. One such instrument – an instrument that has fallen out of favour and indeed could be called ‘Mozart’s lost clarinet’ – is the basset clarinet. Anton Stadler (1753–1812) was a strong advocate of this melodic instrument and being good friends with Mozart, they worked together to write a Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto. While there has been historical drama around their relationship, these works continue to be popular around the world today.

What happened to this instrument? It slowly faded away, with manufacture discontinuing and composers ignoring it in favour of the more standard B-flat instrument. So we come to the 20th century when interest in period performances is piqued and people try to recreate works as the composers originally intended. Thanks to this movement, the basset clarinet has had a resurgence of popularity, including many new works composed to allow it to have a show-stopping solo.Richard Birchall is a cellist working with the Philharmonic Orchestra, the orchestra on this recording and his use of sonority is well developed in this new basset clarinet concerto written for the British virtuoso Michael Collins. Collins is, as always, a beautiful musician and brings this instrument to the heights of perfection.


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