Michael Collins discovered the clarinet at primary school. His headmistress, Miss Yorke, would take groups to the Robert Mayer concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. “One particular Saturday,” he relates, “it was the LSO playing Scheherazade and I told my headmistress there and then that the clarinet was the instrument I absolutely had to play. My parents couldn’t afford one but, as a horrible seven-year old, I badgered and eventually my granddad bought me a clarinet and I took to it immediately. With all the teaching I’ve done over the years, you can tell with youngsters – the way they take the clarinet out of the case and put it together, the way they bring the clarinet to their lips – you just know it was made for them, as an extension of their own bodies.”

Michael Collins
© Benjamin Ealovega

Collins is the highest profile clarinettist of his generation in Britain, but has recently extended his foray into conducting. When we meet at Wigmore Hall, he is looking hale and hearty, having just been given the all-clear after beating a ghastly colon cancer. In six months of chemotherapy, he didn’t cancel a single concert and is feeling chipper. “I’ve had some concerts recently that have been some of the best concerts I’ve given,” he beams. “It comes down to this: it doesn’t matter, just go out and enjoy yourself!”

It’s been a long career, which began when, at the age of just 16, he got through to the final of the very first BBC Young Musician competition. “At school, I spotted the flyer on the information board and it looked very appealing,” he recalls. It was a competition that catapulted him to great things. “On the entry forms in those days you had to list your repertoire for each round should you get through.” With the bravado of youth – and just two days between woodwind semi-final, woodwind final and concerto final, Collins went for broke, vowing to learn the repertoire by heart. “For the concerto, I’d put down the Finzi. I’d gone through my music cupboard and found this beautiful turquoise-blue Boosey & Hawkes cover. I’d never even heard the piece but I put it down on the form because everyone else was choosing Mozart or Weber and I didn’t expect to get through... but I did! So Thea King, my teacher, came up to Manchester and I had a day to learn it. The next day was a rehearsal with the BBC Northern (now the BBC Philharmonic) and then the concerto final the following day!” Collins describes how King, whose husband, Frederick Thurston, had premiered the work in 1949, was “eternally grateful. It gave a lovely exposure to the piece – this was before she’d recorded it for Hyperion – because she’d tried for years to have it played, as did Gervase de Peyer, as did Jack Brymer.”

Collins had been studying with King since his early teens. “There was something about her musicality that struck a chord and that intrigued me. My lessons with her had nothing to do with the clarinet. It was all about the music.

Michael Collins
© Benjamin Ealovega

“At 18, I went to the Juilliard. I was supposed to go for three years, studying with Stanley Drucker, but it was more like three weeks. I really didn’t like it. New York’s a great place, but I didn’t feel I was going to get what I needed at that stage. By that point, I’d been giving concerts for two seasons, so I came back to study with Thea and immediately had an invite to join the Nash Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta, which I accepted. They were two incredibly busy jobs. When I was asked to play the Corigliano and the Nielsen with the Concertgebouw, Thea said, “There’s no point bringing these pieces to me!” Her suggestion was to go and have lessons with someone who was outside the tradition so I went to Jacqueline du Pré. She was quite ill by that stage and would pretend to play an imaginary fingerboard and sing, sliding between notes. ‘Why is it so square on the clarinet?’ she’d complain. She’d challenge traditions by asking ‘Why do you take a breath there? It’s awful. Don’t!’

Dame Thea King was a great champion of British repertoire and, when pressed, Collins admits that he does feel a sense of “inheritance” when performing and recording it. “I’m very passionate about that repertoire. It’s good stuff and before I hang up the clarinet, if I can actually convince audiences that these pieces are worth hearing, then I’ll have carried on that passion from Thea.” Works like Finzi’s Five Bagatelles are deceptively simple. “I played the Carol as an encore with Mikhail Pletnev and we came to the last line and heard B flat church bells tolling in the piano part. I’d never noticed them before but Pletnev – a typical Russian – really brought out these inner parts. You can look through these pieces and find something new every time.”

Few clarinettists sustain solo careers. Many combine solo work with being an orchestral principal. Apart from the Nash Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta, Collins spent time serving with the Philharmonia. I wondered how hard is was to juggle the two. “I found my old diary from the mid-1980s. There was one Sunday where I had a coffee morning recital at Wigmore Hall, then I rushed to the QEH for a quick rehearsal of Hans Werner Henze’s The Miracle of the Rose with the Sinfonietta, which we then gave in the afternoon concert (live on Radio 3), then I rushed over to the Festival Hall to rehearse the Mozart concerto with the Philharmonia which I played – another live broadcast – in the evening. I must have been a total idiot!” Isn’t there a temptation when you’re young to say yes to everything? “There still is!” comes the grinned response.

Michael Collins
© Benjamin Ealovega

The 1980s saw the explosion of classical music on CD and the Philharmonia recorded everything. “Any spare three hours was taken up with a recording, even at 10pm after an RFH concert, we’d head to Abbey Road for something completely different. It was called the Divorce Orchestra for good reason! These were all high profile DG recordings. No expense was spared. There was one ridiculous moment when we were recording Tosca with Giuseppe Sinopoli. I couldn’t do it because I would have missed a couple of sessions. Anyway, they weren’t happy with the clarinet solo before “E lucevan le stelle” so they called me in for a studio session in Tooting – just me, Domingo and Sinopoli – so we could record the opening and patch it in.”

The climate has changed much, but Collins has been very lucky with Chandos, recording 19 discs with them, including his new account of the Crusell concertos. I ask his thoughts on setting down interpretations on disc. “Maybe this is the wrong way to go about it, but you wake up, it’s another day and you can’t determine beforehand the mood you're going to be in. You can be holier than thou about recording the Brahms sonatas but it all depends on how you’re feeling on the day. We’re only human. I just try to give a performance – in one take as much as possible. You can easily get into dissecting mode and end up with a recording that isn’t true.”

Collins played Buffet clarinets before going to Peter Eaton, and has currently been on Yamahas for the past six-seven years. Reed-wise, he “dabbles” between 3 and 3½, softer, I point out, than someone like Andreas Ottensamer. “But then, Austrian mouthpieces have a longer lay on the mouthpiece,” he explains, “so therefore you need a tougher reed.”

The Mozart concerto is Collins’ favourite “for all sorts of reasons, not least because I share the same birthday as Mozart… as did Jack Brymer!” He has recorded it twice, both times on basset clarinets. “It develops in performance. It’s like a fine wine, the longer it hangs around, the longer it has to breathe. You find so many nuances that you overlooked or didn’t even know were there. You could never tire of the Mozart because there’s no definitive way of playing it.” He often plays different cadenzas in the Adagio although he reveals how, when he recorded it for the second time with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, he did three takes, playing a different cadenza for each, but the one the engineers ended up choosing was the same as in his first recording with Pletnev!

Collins was one of the first to insist on performing the concerto on a basset. He viewed the autograph manuscript in the Winterthur in Zurich. “I put on my white gloves and it’s as clear as day – particularly in the first movement where Mozart’s intentions are so clear – that it has to be played on the basset. As clarinettists, if we’re going to play the piece then at least try and get to the heart of it with the right instrument.” Later this year, Collins will tackle the concerto for the first time on a period instrument with the Academy of Ancient Music, so is getting cracking trying out different instruments.

For his second recording, Collins himself directed. “I find it really hard now to play the Mozart with a third person! That’s why I started conducting” (He is now Principal Conductor of the City of London Sinfonia.) “For the Mozart, I now have a whitelist of a few conductors that I trust. I’ve had so many bad experiences with that piece. There are ‘old school’ conductors where everything is legato and there is no pinpointing of phrasing – everything sounding like a Brahms symphony or something. It’s a nightmare.”

“Conducting is about belief. It’s fine when you’re standing there with a clarinet, facing out to the audience, but once you’re facing 80 wonderful musicians... even the way you say good morning makes a difference. I remember once we did a Beethoven 9 with Carlo Maria Giulini. I was there an hour before rehearsal, trying out my reeds on the platform. In the wings, out of the corner of my eye, I spied him there with a black cape and a top hat. I tensed up as he started walking towards me. “Good morning, Michael.” He knew my name! And he wanted to talk about the slow movement, how I phrased it, breathing and so on. I could not believe that this great maestro was asking me rather than dictating. That’s something I learnt very early about conducting. Don’t dictate!”

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