Lovers of the clarinet were treated to a pair of double delights in this concert: not only were there two concertos (one old and one new); but there was also a pair of distinguished clarinettists sharing the stage. Michael Collins, who has a string of excellent recordings to his name, and is known the world over as champion of his instrument, both directed the orchestra and played the solo in Mozart’s perennially popular A-major Concerto (K.622). Paul Dean, arguably Australia’s most well-known exponent of the clarinet, gave the second performance of his brand new concerto, with Collins conducting. To anchor the program in A Major, proceedings came to a close with Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, Op. 92.

Michael Collins, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Mozart, ClarinetMichael Collins and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniel Aulsebrook

Collins delivered an elegantly shaped account of the Mozart in which his beautifully mellifluous tone starred throughout. The many jumps between registers, which are a particular feature of the outer movements, were effortlessly negotiated, while the inner core of the work – its celebrated Adagio – radiated with lyrical intensity. The orchestra, ably and aptly led by guest concertmaster Helena Rathbone (courtesy of the Australian Chamber Orchestra) responded well to Collins’ direction, ensuring a lightness of touch, especially in matters of articulation and rhythm. There were also some moments of exquisitely soft playing in the second movement. (It is many years since I attended an orchestral concert in Robert Blackwood, and I had forgotten that for all its drab appearance, the hall’s acoustics are actually quite good.)

Dean’s Concerto is a great contrast to the Mozart. Cast in two movements of four sections each and running for about 25 minutes, it could be described as something of a postmodernist maelstrom. Dean deploys a fairly large orchestra including bass clarinet, contrabassoon and harp, and is not afraid to pit this musical mass against the solo instrument for extended periods.

Paul Dean, Melbourne Symphony OrchestraPaul Dean, Michael Collins and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniel Aulsebrook

A brief introduction in which an aria-like clarinet solo contrasts with jagged orchestral surrounds is succeeded by a flowing Scherzetto, only to be supplanted by a spiky Burlesque which was inspired by a dream of the composer standing in front of the MSO. The first movement concludes with an extended Adagio, partly shaped by the recent death of the composer’s mother. It is laden with nostalgia and a languorous melancholy which is intensified by the sustained use of the clarinet’s highest register. Dean favours this register throughout the concerto, particularly at climaxes. Given the instrument’s natural propensity to shrillness at high pitches, such sustained writing puts me in mind of the old dictum that the effectiveness of some things varies in inverse proportion to their use.

The second movement begins with a section entitled “Out of the Blue” whose solid textures give way to a frenetic Waltz inspired by dreams following a performance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. A cadenza, in this case a truly a soloistic tour de force features lightning changes from low to high registers, giving even the composer a good challenge. A brief, dramatic finale brings the work to an abrupt end. This sudden finish (and what had preceded it) left many of the good burghers of Melbourne’s southern suburbs somewhat stunned, but I daresay the concerto will be taken up and appreciated by intrepid players and audiences further afield.

After the challenge of a new work, players and audience visibly and audibly relaxed as the familiar terrain of Beethoven’s Seventh was traversed. While clarinets are present, they are not in the forefront of the writing, which gave a chance for the rest of the wind section to shine, starting with the symphony’s arresting opening. Collins set lively yet manageable tempos, allowing the players to get on with their job without too much intervention.

Rathbone was an energising force for the strings who worked has a tightly knit unit. Once again, the hall projected some attractive sounds, such as the wind-string interchanges in the first movement and the low string choir that begins the second. The major-mode, folkloric episodes in the scherzo swelled joyously, while an ebullient finale brought the concert to a satisfying conclusion.