Anthony Collins: Complete Decca Recordings – Australian Eloquence *

by | Oct 20, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

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Anthony Collins: Complete Decca Recordings – Australian Eloquence 484 1467 (2021) [14 CDs complete content listed below, 14 hrs 17:35] *****: 

Anthony Collins (1893-1963), violist and composer turned conductor, has long deserved my personal re-assessment: the British conductor, the second (after Sixten Ehrling) to record the complete Sibelius symphony-cycle, had lost some credence in my estimate when I first compared his 1952 Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan Williams (here on CD 11) against the seething performance of the work from Dimitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic. When I noted, however, that Eloquence had assembled the Collins Decca complete recordings, I requested the set deliberately, prepared to evaluate Collins on his own terms. Certainly, Collins’ repute as a composer of film scores needs no apology: his music for Nurse Edith Cavell, Allegheny Uprising, Destroyer, and Macao well stand out in my cinematic lexicon, and Collins scored some 30 movies. Listening to Collins’ Vaughan Williams and Elgar now, I find his interpretations direct, sober, immaculately clear, and dramatically energized, aided by fine Decca sound produced by the likes of Kenneth Wilkinson, James Walker, and Victor Olof. The producers of this hearty retrospective give us a mere bit of Collins’ own classical compositions recorded in 1954, his transparent Vanity Fair and the buoyant With Emma to Town, modest offerings, considering that  his Violin Concerto (for Louis Kaufman) and a pair of symphonies grace his catalogue.  .

The beauty of such an extensive set lies in its allowing anyone to begin where he likes: I start with Sibelius, since this composer inscribed the reputation of Anthony Collins as an interpreter of serious music performed in serious terms. The 21-22 February 1952 Sibelius Symphony No. 1 justifies our attention immediately, from the opening clarinet solo to the last, plucked chords of the Finale, Quasi una fantasia. The reading has sweep and instrumental eloquence, easily comparable to what we most enjoy in Beecham and Barbirolli. After two, poignant opening movements, the Scherzo hurls bite and incisive power at us, making a fine transition to the last movement’s epic suggestion of Northern landscapes and their intrusion into stellar spaces. A fine rarity, in its way, the Karelia Overture from a 1955 recording, begins Disc 7, a vigorous performance on a par with those I know from Ormandy and Gibson. I went directly to the most elusive of the Sibelius symphonies, the No. 6 in D Minor (rec. January 1955), whose hazy atmospheres and angular melodic lines never fail to capture our musical imagination, especially when rendered with lithe and spacious, instrumental dexterity. The self-willed Symphony No. 7 of 1924 (rec. 1955) does elicit a sense of its “evolutionary” growth before our ears, given Collins’ deliberate, lushly textured approach. The compelling hybrid form, part fantasia, part theme and variations, luxuriates in the small, thematic cells over chromatic bass lines that coalesce into its towering, C Major theme, stated in trombones. Koussevitzky likened the soft, Adagio section to Wagner’s Parsifal, although Sibelius’ use of string polyphony retains a highly individual character. The late pages from Collins and the LSO make us regret he did not record Tapiola. Collins’ 1954 reading of the 1906 Pohjola’s Daughter, fashioned like a tone-poem from Franz Liszt, brings an energy we associate with the likes of Thomas Beecham  and Leonard Bernstein. Pohjola’s Daughter depicts an episode from the Kalevala which tells about Väinämöinen and a maiden from the north, Pohjola’s daughter, with whom the old hero falls in love. A contest between lyrical and declamatory elements, the piece allows the LSO brass ample display of their concerted sound, fanfares of blazing clarity. 

The 1907 Symphony No. 3 in C Major (rec. 1954) frequently avoids the attentions of the major conductors of Sibelius, such as Beecham, Karajan, Stokowski, and Koussevitzky. The work’s Neo-classical ambitions demand a terse, pared-down approach; Sibelius claimed that an orchestra of no more than 50 players should realize it. What marks the central nature of this experiment in form lies in the rhythms, many of which derive from folk music. Much of the texture of this symphony seems residual from the score of Pohjola’s Daughter. The LSO French horns announce for the Allegro moderato a motto, C-D-E-F#, that impels the music forward to the cellos in a distant B Minor; and so, the harmonic tension proceeds in modulated 16ths almost throughout, with an occasional suggestion of a hymn tune. Collins captures the deceptive simplicity of the Andantino second movement in beautiful balance between strings and his responsive wind choir. Whether this movement conforms to a rondo, theme and variations, or sonata-allegro is anyone’s educated guess. The tone remains elegiac, almost a march in measured tempo, and its harmonies prepare us for the unbroken segue into the audacities of the last movement, Moderato – Allegro (ma non tanto). Four times the theme of the second movement appears, each times a variant of its initial presentation, and wonderful thirds in the winds break off to leave us in a brief space before the last movement. Collins must tie a series of thematic kernels and impulses into a “crystallization out of chaos,” moving to an energized, five-note orison of elemental power. The interplay between horns, strings, and timpani quite testifies to the illumined recording process Decca could provide – courtesy of Victor Olof and Peter Andry – a major orchestra. Equally gripping in its initial chords, the 1908 Night Ride and Sunrise, a piece depicting a night sleigh forest solitude that gallops into a joyful, pantheistic awe at the wonder of a new dawn. Collins (3 June 1955) treats the score as an etude in dynamics and textural colors, as the main theme undergoes permutations of intensity and contour. A string hymn over a timpani pedal emerges, soon invaded by bird calls and streaks of light. Highly impressionistic in its means, the piece had a poor initial reception in St. Petersburg in 1909 under Alexander Siloti. For us, the evolving musical language of Sibelius, while retaining its mystery, still urges us to relish the composer’s idiosyncratic, expressive power.

Disc 9 contains the emotionally grueling Symphony No. 4 in A Minor of 1911 with the more heroic Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major of 1915, revised1919. Sibelius suffered several setbacks in the years 1909-1911, including the removal of a cancerous tumor from his throat. Europe itself moved ineluctably to the events of the First World War. Sibelius invokes the musical tritone (C-F#) to express his anxiety with the times, the cellos, basses, and bassoons instructed to produce a sound “as harsh as fate.” A sense of imminent threat pervades the first movement, Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio, which the LSO projects with alternately grim harmonies from a densely scored series of grumbles and retreats, inspired, as the story goes, by Sibelius’ visit to Koli, the storm-tossed Finnish mountain of Karelia, and the mountain streams, especially of Imatra, provided the composer a source of nature-inspired counterpoints. Thematic contrast and progressive variation define the internal structure and evolution of this enigmatic work. The harmony softens superficially in the second movement, Allegro molto vivace, a scherzo set in the Lydian mode of the tritone (F-B). The storm rumblings, however, continue to infect the playfulness with a dark spirit. The third movement Largo wishes to sing, but it reveals its melody (in C# Minor) only grudgingly, with the strings in fifths and the cello line’s taking the tune in ninths. The emotional ambiguity – even fragility – extends into the last movement, Allegro, with the tritone’s being stretched a perfect fifth, E-flat above A. All attempts to make an idyll of this experience consistently shatter, and the music ends in a desolate A Minor. Sibelius grew accustomed to quote Strindberg when speaking of this symphony, “It is misery to be human,” a sentiment close both to Aeschylus and the legendary Silenus. Collins’ invokes marvels of color with his responsive LSO (22-25 February 1954), bringing this enigmatic work, whose glockenspiel in the finale attempts to inveigle a bit of relief into a hazy twilight that the recurrent tritone insists symbolizes the anxiety of an epoch. 

The Finnish government had declared Sibelius’ birthday a national holiday and invited the composer to respond with a celebratory score. The Fifth Symphony of 1915 organically evolves, claimed Sibelius, from a vision of flying swans, a “gleaming silver ribbon,” that became symbolic for him of a rebirth of sensibility: the Tempo molto moderato proceeds as “a series of rivulets in a flowing stream,” as each of the orchestral choirs, in stretto, layers a tapestry of ascending, bucolic power. Collins’ reading (25-27 January 1955) captures the immediacy of the visionary moment, especially in the LSO brass, who punctuate the occasion over tremolo strings and rolling timpani. The tension becomes almost unbearable, but the next period, Largamente, breaks the woodwind motif into fragments, only to coalesce once more with resounding authority. The suggestion of a grand arch arises, illuminated by a sense of resplendent power. With the transition into Allegro moderato, the mood becomes ambiguous but lighter, more playfully gracious despite contrapuntal murmurs from the bass strings and timpani. The coda assumes a frenetic momentum, like river rapids, sweeping us to an abrupt conclusion. The second movement Andante mosso, quasi allegretto in staccato flutes and pizzicato strings may have its gently martial affect in common with the middle movement of Symphony No. 3, but Sibelius links this variation movement directly to his final movement, Allegro molto, in order to bring his “Swan Theme” to a grand apotheosis. Collins sustains the grandeur of the music without distortion or ostentation, though few performances can match what luster Celibidache achieved in Sweden. In June and September of 1955, Collins and the LSO recorded six excerpts from Sibelius’ 1905 incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play about illicit passion, Pelléas et Mélisande, of which the last section, “The Death of Mélisande,” dominates the score for a poignance equivalent to what we find in Dante’s verses about Francesca da Rimini, complemented by the Tchaikovsky symphonic poem, also recorded by Collins, with the London Philharmonic in April, 1956. Despite the accuracy and fine articulation of parts in Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Capriccio Italien, Collins’ performance does not match the inflection in Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1949 romp nor the sheer bravura achieved by Paul van Kempen in Amsterdam.

The collection does good justice to Collins’ comfortable service as an accompanist to major instrumentalists, such as his late May 1952 collaboration with the New Symphony of London in the Rachmaninoff D Minor Concerto with Moura Lympany (1916-2005), a fine testament to her total assimilation of the Rachmaninoff style in the course of an extremely relaxed presentation. After a formidably long pause at the end of the Intermezzo movement, Collins and Lympany launch into a lithe, athletic Finale fervently worth the price of admission, with some transcendent pearly play from Lympany’s upper register. Eloquence couples the Rachmaninoff with a supple performance from mid-September 1954 of the 1886 Richard Strauss Burleske, featuring the always brilliant and oft controversial Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000), who likewise appears in three Mozart concertos. The Strauss endures as a clever virtuoso piece that manages to parody aspects of Brahms, Wagner, and Liszt. Gulda and Collins afford the virile piece a quick sense of motion, befitting its debts to the second movement of the Brahms B-flat Concerto. Gulda executes the runs in Lisztian style, and the cadenza proffers the so-called Tristan chord in the midst of the cadenza. The LSO shines in the strings and brass, but no less in the formidable presence of the timpani part. For equally visceral excitement, we have on Disc 3 the two Mendelssohn piano concertos (rec. 9-10 February 1956) with the too often under-rated British virtuoso Peter Katin (1930-2015). These slick, stylistically adept readings warranted the historic Pristine Classical label to reissue these as part of their catalogue (PASC 279). Gulda and Collins prove themselves masters of the Mozart in the three concertos the recorded between 1954-1955, a fact lamented by critic Lionel Salter when Collins left his London environs for Hollywood: “When we lost Anthony Collins to Hollywood, we lost a first-rate Mozart conductor. . .[capable of] felicities of phrasing and dynamics.” The natural and fluid relationship between the keyboard part and the orchestra ingratiates itself in all three works, and especially the C Major, K. 503, which demands a fine balance between epic girth and transparency of execution. 

The music of Mozart opens the entire Collins retrospective, auspiciously, with the CD transfer of the 28-29 May 1945 Symphony No. 33, a work from 1779 that Mozart intended for the Viennese taste, in four movements. The energetic presentation of themes in movement one, Allegro assai, includes a motif that will recur later, in the “Jupiter” Symphony. Collins leads the London Mozart Orchestra, the ensemble he founded himself in 1939. The second movement Andante moderato plays like a sweet cassation or outdoor serenade; the last movement Allegro assai seems a likely model for the Beethoven of his Eighth Symphony. The two wind concertos, recorded July and August 1954, feature famed Gervase de Peyer (1926-2017) in the Clarinet Concerto and Henri Helaerts (1907-2003) in the Bassoon Concerto. The former, with de Peyer, offers a sonorous, silken rendition of this late, valedictory work of Mozart, spirited in the outer movements and absolutely lulling in the Adagio. Mozart’s precocious 1774 Concerto for Bassoon, written for aristocratic amateur bassoonist Baron Thaddäus von Dürnitz (1756 – 1807) never fails to impress with its natural fluency and buoyant charm, finding in Henri Helaerts a performer who makes of his instrument a lyrical bass-baritone. The clever first movement cadenza is by Jacques Ibert. The last pair of collaborations, 14 and 18 February 1955, involve violin virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012), famous for his interpretations of Paganini; and indeed, we have the Concertos in D and B Minor, the latter’s featuring the “La Campanella” last movement. For the 1819 D Major Concerto, I would have preferred Ricci had not followed Francescatti in the use of the shortened opening tutti work; but once Ricci becomes engaged, the rest becomes sterling bravura in ricochet pizzicatos, harmonics, and elevated, Italian bel canto. After a luxurious Adagio in the B Minor Concerto, Ricci and Collins bring a decided brio and exuberant dash to the long-familiar “Little Bell” third movement, colorful, impish, and deftly brilliant, at once.

Collins, much like Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli, devotes considerable energy, 1953-1954, to the music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934), which remains essentially landscape portraiture and impressions, much of its bearing a similar syntax and sound. Works like The Walk to the Paradise Garden, A Song of Summer, and Brigg Fair proceed in pretty harmonies and a degree of pantheistic rapture, driven by woodwind and string interplay. New to Collins’ CD discography, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, the first of Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, contributes more of the same musical tissue without demanding profundity. The extensive tone-poem Paris – Song of a Great City (1899) bears the influences of Richard Strauss and Debussy, and it proves informative to note where Collins departs from Beecham’s ideas of tempo and nuance. Essentially a huge nocturne, the piece breaks off from its dreamy veils to reveal the intense night-life of Paris, a city Delius revered as “a corner of his own soul,” according to Philip Heseltine, and Collins preserves the high gaiety in “the City of Light.” The Delius piece extend onto Disc 13, with two more “summer pieces,” In a Summer Garden (1908) and the 1912 Summer Night on the River, the second of the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, from 20-21 October 1953, each atmospheric by way of Debussy, but more advanced harmonically in chromatic color, all in sweet remembrance of Delius’ garden in Grez-sur-Loing in France. Disc 13 then proceeds to William Walton’s 1922 Façade – An Entertainment, a musical – mostly in Jazz and dance-hall mode – setting of poems by Dame Edith Sitwell, who conceived her somewhat autobiographical verses as “studies in word-rhythms and onomatopoeia,” to quote Michael Kennedy. Tenor Peter Pears and Sitwell deliver the clever, if often unfathomable, verses in deftly nuanced riffs, as mesmerizing as they can be puzzling. Allusions to Greek myth, Queen Victoria, William Tell, Spanish trysts, and various seascapes abound, even opening with a jaunty hornpipe.  If these whimsical and satiric lyrics have a cousin, it might be “Congo by Vachel Lindsay. A sophisticated party joke, recorded 10-11 August 1954, the music endures for the clever rhythmic modes, some of which, like the waltz, tarantella, tango-pasadoble, and polka, gleaned high praise from conductor and classical music critic Constant Lambert. 

Collins gives us but one work (on Disc 14) directly by Richard Strauss, the First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier from 1951 with the London Philharmonic. But from March 1952 with the LSO we have Sir Edward Elgar’s homage to Strauss in the form of his Falstaff – Symphonic Study (1913). The music portrays the progress, not so much of the fat knight Sir John Falstaff, but of Prince Hal from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Hal’s personal evolution to the maturity required on a king. Orson Welles’s 1965 film Chimes at Midnight addresses the same theme. The music by Elgar has a lumbering nobility and mirthful sense of wit and later tragedy, as Hal outgrows his sporting mentor to assume regal character. In six connected sections, this tone-poem proffers various moods and passionate gestures in which the composer took especial pride, and this Collins interpretation bears special listening. On the same Disc 11, we have Collins at the helm of selected Members of the New Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a performance to rival that by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, and a lovely, delicately rendered Serenade in E Minor that compares well with my own favorites from Beecham and Barbirolli. Along with the aforementioned Tallis Fantasia, we have the September 1952 Fantasy on Greensleeves. Complementing the light British oeuvre on Disc 14, Humperdinck’s “Dream Pantomime” from Hansel and Gretel (1956) provides an enchanting interlude. Collins’ rendition of Arthur Sullivan’s 1870 Overture di Ballo has the requisite energy for its three sections, devoted to the polonaise, waltz, and galop. The reading from December 1956 compares well with my classic performance from Sir Adrian Boult.

Most conspicuous by its delayed appearance, my thoughts on Anthony Collins and the London Symphony Orchestra as they perform the 1902 Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D Major from 12 May 1953: both pantheistic and epic in scope and affect, this work has its “ultimate” recorded statement – even beyond fine documents from Kajanus, Beecham, and Barbirolli – in 1950 with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, so every performance subsequent seems anti-climactic. The Collins performance, nevertheless, reveals a striking momentum from the outset, excellent instrumental definition, and a decided sympathy for the Sibelius style, given the composer’s adjustments to standard sonata-form. The LSO brass work proves convincing, eloquent and pungent. The second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato – Andante sostenuto proceeds in the Aeolian A minor, and opening pizzicato, divides episodically in the manner of Brahms. There emerges a bardic sense of orchestral declamation, and we feel the Kalevela nigh. The LSO timpani part (Denis Blyth?) contributes in large measure to the dramatic effect, especially after warbling strings and winds take up the narrative, and the music sings a paean to Finland and to Nature. The whiplash scherzo, Vivacissimo – Lento e suave – Largamente, plays like an orchestra toccata, again with a dominant timpani part to gird the manic strings and woodwinds. The smooth transition to the Finale: Allegro moderato accomplishes its task in transforming the 3-note motif into a transcendent affirmation of will, certainly an impressive testament to Collins, the former viola player who emerged as a major force in Britain’s musical life. 

—Gary Lemco

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Anthony Collins: Complete Decca Recordings = 

MOZART: Symphony No. 33 in B-flat Major, K. 319; Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622; Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 191; Menuetto from Divertimento in D Major, K. 334; Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K. 449; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537 “Coronation”; 

MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25; Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40; 

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; R. STRAUSS: Burleske in D Minor; 

PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6; Violin Concerto No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 7; 

BIZET: Carmen – Suite; 

FALLA: El amor brujo – Suite; 

TCHAIKOVSKY: Capriccio Italien, Op. 45; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32; 

SIBELIUS: Karelia Overture, Op. 10; Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43; Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52; Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104; Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49; Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite, Op. 46; Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55; 

ELGAR: Falstaff – Symphonic Study, Op. 68; Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47; Serenade for String Orchestra in E Minor, Op. 20; 

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Fantasia on Greensleeves; 

DELIUS: The Walk to the Paradise Garden; A Song of Summer; Brigg Fair – An English Rhapsody; On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Paris (The Song of a Great City); In a Summer Garden; Summer Night on the River; 

WALTON: Façade – An Entertainment; 

R. STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier – Waltz Suite No. 1; 

HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel: Dream Pantomime; 

SULLIVAN: Overture di Ballo; 

GARDINER: Shepherd Fennel’s Dance; 

GRAINGER: Shepherd’s Hay; 

COLLINS: Vanity Fair; With Emma to Town 

Performing Artists:

Gervase de Peyer, clarinet/ Henri Helaerts, bassoon/ Friedrich Gulda, piano (Mozart, R. Strauss)/ Peter Katin, piano (Mendelssohn)/ Moura Lympany, piano (Rachmaninoff)/ Ruggiero Ricci, violin/ Sir Peter Pears and Dame Edith Sitwell, reciters (Walton)/ London Mozart Orchestra (K. 319, K. 334)/ London Symphony Orchestra/ New Symphony Orchestra (Mozart K. 449; K. 503, K. 537; Rachmaninoff; Sullivan; Grainger; Gardiner; Elgar; Vaughan Williams)/ London Philharmonic Orchestra (Bizet; Falla)/ English Opera Group Ensemble (Walton)/ London Promenade Orchestra (Collins)

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Anthony Collins Comlete Decca Recordings, Album Cover

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