Britten through the eyes of…Michael Collins


Photo: Ben Ealovega

The clarinetist and conductor Michael Collins made the first recording of Britten’s Movement for clarinet and orchestra, which was expanded into a full Clarinet Concerto through the work of Colin Matthews.

In this interview he talks about the work, which he will perform later this week in the context of Copland and Shostakovich as part of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival. He also talks about Britten’s writing for the clarinet and possible reasons for him not writing more solo music for the instrument.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?

As a very young kid I remember that was an exhibition over at the Royal College of Music. We were doing a performance of Soirées musicales and Britten himself was actually there. It would have been in the very early 1970s, when I was 8 or 9.

Did you meet him at all?

No, I think we were all just a bit scared with this distinguished looking elderly chap! I don’t remember much more about it unfortunately, it’s going back a long time.

What did you learn from reading about Britten’s encounters with Benny Goodman, and about the Movement for Clarinet Concerto that he completed?

Well, where do we start? I suppose we’re lucky to have this work in the repertoire. I gave the first performance of the complete movement back in the 1990s. The manuscript was confiscated when Britten sailed back to England, but when Benny Goodman decided that he wanted to do a tour of Europe, and wanted to cover himself in glory, and Britten didn’t bother resurrecting it, which is sad for us. I don’t really know exactly what happened in their encounters, we can only speculate really.

I read Christopher Palmer’s note on the first recording and he says it is definitely a work that ‘should have been finished’ – does it feel good to have put that right?

It does. It puts the lid on it. It was really strange, the first performance, going on to play this one movement, and when I gave the premiere of the complete concerto, with the other two movements completed by Colin Matthews. He really has done the most amazing job, finishing and to an extent speculating, it’s all in keeping and is a wonderful piece. I think Colin has continued in the same way, there isn’t a jump in any sense, and there is a really good sense of flow through it. I was a bit tentative, and was thinking, ‘gosh, what’s going to happen here?’ Colin was present at the concerts and the recording, he didn’t say much and kept it close to his chest but I think he was happy.

The concert gives a very great contrast between the Serenade and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.14, although with Britten conducting the first UK performance of the symphony they have more in common than you first think.

Yes, and with the Copland Clarinet Concerto it is quite a programme! The more I’m thinking about it, the more I think it is a really great programme, it ticks many boxes. We start and finish with these two big pieces, the Britten Serenade and the Shostakovich symphony, with the clarinet pieces in the middle.

We did try to put the whole Britten concerto in, because it hasn’t had a London premiere yet, but for all sorts of reasons – budgets and things – we couldn’t get the extra instruments for it. The score just arrived today actually, and I think it will work so well next to the Copland.

Do you think it is a score that shows Britten to be one of our most cosmopolitan composers?

Yes, for sure. He was also working at a time when travel was becoming more accessible, so it was easier and quicker to be recognised in places like America or Russia. Had he been earlier it would have taken longer, and I think it was just the right time for him to be recognised internationally.

How long have you known and played the Copland concerto?

Since I was a kid – I remember seeing him conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in it at the Royal Festival Hall, so it is a work that has been with me for a long time. It is extra special directing it from the clarinet, it really does work. I find it to be a longer version of chamber music.

You have relatively recently taken up conducting – do you see the music of Britten in a different light from that perspective?

When you play, when you’re involved in an orchestra with the clarinet part and are concerned with playing a phrase, you become involved with your own part too. It’s great now to see the music from the outside, and it is a totally different kettle of fish! I’m enjoying the view though, it has opened my eyes and ears and heart to just how wonderful Britten’s music is.

Have you seen much footage of Britten as a conductor?

Not much, but I have seen some of him with the English Chamber Orchestra, and also some of him playing the piano. I love listening to him play the piano, it’s somehow so complete. You’re hearing the music with him, if that makes sense, and I do love his Mozart playing especially.

Is it a regret perhaps that he didn’t forge a similar relationship with Benny Goodman to that he found with Mstislav Rostropovich or Julian Bream?

Yes. I think with so many composers that it is a shame. Mozart, Weber and Brahms did write for the clarinet, but I think the input of others would have changed the repertoire possibilities. I’m surprised because there were so many great clarinet players. My teacher was Dame Thea King, who was married to Frederick Thurston, so there is this link right the way back to Britten, and he was there throughout.

Thurston commissioned pieces from Finzi, Ireland and others, and I did try to ask Thea why not from Britten, but she was not forthcoming. I’m really surprised nothing concrete came from him, especially as he was asked in the way he was by Benny Goodman. Not only that, but in all of his orchestral works there is some brilliant clarinet writing. Yet considering the clarinet was coming into its own, it is still a surprise.

What is your personal favourite in Britten’s output and why?

Gosh, that is a difficult question. There are so many. The operas are obviously so amazing, but I do like the concertos. I think they are magnificent pieces with wonderful orchestration and colour. I think if I had to I would choose the Violin Concerto.

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult to listen to?

No. I think as a practical musician we adapt so fast, that whatever I’m listening to I tune in to. I think because of that it doesn’t enter my head that I should find anything too difficult to listen to, and so with that in mind I open myself to the music.

Finally you devoted several concerts to Poulenc, one of Britten’s contemporaries, whose fifty-year anniversary is this year. Do you think that has been rather overshadowed?

It was pretty obvious to me that we should focus on Poulenc with an orchestra like the City of London Sinfonia, and as you say I think his anniversary has been rather overshadowed. I thought it would be nice to highlight the chamber music especially. You do hear it often, of course, but not so much in the course of one evening.

Michael Collins conducts the City of London Sinfonia in a concert titled Music from across the Iron Curtain, with Britten’s Serenade and Clarinet Concerto movement joining Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.14. This is given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Southbank Centre festival The Rest is Noise. Tickets are available here.

Collins’ own website can be accessed here.

My reviews of the City of London Sinfonia Poulenc concerts given in April can be read by clicking here for the chamber music, and here for an orchestral and choral concert including the Gloria, sung by Elizabeth Watts and Polyphony and conducted by Stephen Layton.

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One Response to Britten through the eyes of…Michael Collins

  1. Pingback: The Rest is Noise – Britten comes to town | Good Morning Britten

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