It was the late John Ruddock who first brought English clarinettist Michael Collins to Irish audiences. On March 1st, 1982, he presented him at Villiers School in Limerick, a week after Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy and a week before the University Choir of Iceland. It was just one of 28 concerts that the fabled Limerick Music Association (LMA) presented that year, and it wasn't the only one to feature Collins. He was back again in July for his LMA-promoted Dublin début at the NCH's John Field Room.
It is a matter of a minute or two before Ruddock’s death comes into the conversation when I meet Michael Collins, who’s back in Ireland to play two of his own and Ruddock’s favourite works – the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms – at the Great Music in Irish Houses Festival. He describes Ruddock and his late wife Doreen as almost a second set of parents, although the first encounter was anything but familial.
“I first met John at something called Interforum in Hungary. It wasn’t a competition, it was a sort of showcase of young musicians from around the world, playing in front of impresarios and critics, and depending on how loud they clapped you, you got to play in this final jamboree. John immediately asked me to come over and play in Limerick, then the John Field Room, and then so many times I’ve lost count.” Based on Gareth Cox’s chronicle of LMA concerts, the count amounted to 40 concerts over the next two decades.
“John was 100 per cent involved, down to the last detail. Of course he was helped by his dear wife Doreen, who would be doing all the food, the catering side of things. He was a real enthusiast, he loved certain composers, others were a no-no for him. He was always ready to discuss the next programme with you. You could call him any time about any kind of programme issue.”
If there was a difficulty, it seems, it was that Ruddock loved the Mozart, Brahms and Weber quintets so much, he couldn't get enough of them. But he loved to ring the changes when it came to musical partnerships. "He introduced me to the Takács Quartet, pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He was a real networker. And he had such a love for things Hungarian that I'm almost surprised I slipped through the net."
The Takács Quartet and pianist Tamás Vásáry were huge favourites, and András Schiff, Zoltán Kocsis and Dezsö Ránki were regulars in the 1970s. “He was so sweet, he had such a passion to make things work, he would let you know from the very beginning there was very little money involved,” says Collins. “Thank goodness for the passion. And behind the scenes we had some fantastic times.”
The upcoming festival concert brings Collins together with the Heath Quartet at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday. How has his view of the great quintets of Mozart and Brahms changed over the years? "When I first played them I was so concerned with being a clarinettist, approaching the music from a clarinet point of view, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. They're stellar works, for us the pinnacle of the repertoire. You keep on finding new things, and you get to know the other parts intimately – I could probably play all the string parts on the clarinet, too.
“But I’m able now to put aside that it’s the clarinet, and just focus on the music, and treat them both as if they were the human voice. I’ve left that worry stage of, what if? The simple side of music, of being able to play a melody, to sing a melody through the instrument is far more important than being note-perfect. If a mistake happens, it happens. It just shows we’re human.
“I’m sometimes asked, ‘You play these pieces so many times, don’t you get bored?’ Well, no. Just like the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, you’re presented with a different set of circumstances at each performance, different orchestra, different conductor, different concert hall, different temperature, different weather, different humidity [the physical conditions all affect the wood the instrument is made of]. In a dry acoustic you have to play faster, you just can’t linger. You can never tire of finding something different to say in these works.”
Sometimes, Collins says, playing with different groups can make him feel like a musical onlooker. “I’ve learnt over the years if I come along and disturb this inner set way of performing, it will be a disaster, it will throw the performance, it will be awful. I observe, learn as fast as I can the way they play, the shaping of phrases, the style of articulation, even the way they approach a staccato note, and I will adapt.
"It keeps me very fresh, playing the same pieces as often as I do," says Collins. "I love this challenge of working out what sort of pitch the quartet will play at. Even leading notes, semitones, they all approach them in different ways, and I have to match that. I'm not one of these musicians to go in and say, 'you're going to play the way I want you to play'. It just doesn't work. Quartets are so set in their own ways, and you can't disturb that."
Has he encountered the kind of strange relationships within quartets that people talk about so much? "All the time. Yes. As I say, I just feel like a privileged onlooker to a personal and professional situation. It's wonderful. You learn very fast the chemistry of what's going on between them, maybe the first violin is not talking to the cello, or whatever.
“The more you play, the more you encounter the way they rehearse, the more you understand why. They go into a survival mode, and the easiest way is perhaps not to talk to each other.
“In my experience, working with so many quartets, it’s one of the most dangerous and explosive musical relationships you can come across. But one of the happiest as well, in terms of music-making. And working with so many fine quartets, I learnt so much as well.”
But what if he runs into, say, some tempo choices he just can’t live with? “I have this formula now. It’s the same formula with a new quartet. ‘Hello, how are you?’ Then we talk about the weather, or whatever. And then I ask, ‘Why don’t we just play the piece through without saying anything, so that we can get used to each other’s ways?’
“Now, usually, 30 or 40 minutes later, we’ve been able to analyse each other’s little eccentricities, and, without saying anything, adapt to them. In some cases, and I have to say it’s usually with quartets that are not quite on the top level, they’re the ones that want to talk more, and work out all these little eccentricities, or do something just to be different.
“For me, you don’t try something just to be different. What’s the point? It’s got to come from within. From your heart and your very soul.”
Michael Collins plays the clarinet quintets by Mozart and Brahms with the Heath Quartet at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Friday. greatmusicinirishhouses.com