Not only an accomplished pianist, whether solo or chamber, often partnering his cellist-brother Paul, Huw Watkins (born 1976) – who studied with Julian Anderson, Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway – is a composer of finely-wrought scores building with individuality on a glorious past. This NMC release, in association with the Delius Trust, presents three stellar examples, each roughly twenty-two minutes, of Watkins’s compositional art.
Taken in order of composition (strange if of no consequence that NMC doesn’t follow the chronology), the Violin Concerto (2010) for Alina Ibragimova hits the ground running with energetic opening bars, speedily and edgily racing ahead before a reflective passage intercedes, a momentary breather before the pace gathers to tempo primo and the music lightning-flashes before us intensely and dramatically, lyrical music set against rapidity. Contrasts abound, the first movement ending quietly, maybe resignedly, something sustained into the soulful Andante, the violin sad if unsettled, the atmosphere charged and only solaced by the closing warmth of mellifluous horns, and the violin’s seeming contentment, if then offset by a Finale that is ferocious and brazen, the violin forcefully determined to reach closure ... not achieved, save pensively. This assured world-premiere performance, originally broadcast live on Radio 3, is courtesy of the BBC and, rightfully, shorn of applause and between-movement coughs and hubbub.
The Flute Concerto (2013) for Adam Walker, first heard the following February with the LSO and Daniel Harding, is also in three movements. The first is frothy and airy, scored translucently, music brightly clear if not without darker nooks and crannies, the ear entranced, not least by Walker’s beguiling timbre and poised dexterity – flautist liberated – a quality carried forward into the fantasia of the slow movement, rapturously pastoral at times to magical effect. The Finale requires nimbleness and rhythmic point from all concerned, duly received, before the music enters a slower, almost-sacred, realm that eventually indicates the way to the unresolved ending that suggests a continuation that we are not to be privy to.
As rewarding as both these works are – especially the Flute Concerto – the Symphony (2017) is the standout piece. Composed for the Hallé, and funded by the Britten-Pears Foundation, Mark Elder conducted the premiere in April that year. It has a two-movement design, each of equal length – nominally fast-slow, if continuous – that works a treat, enough, it seems to me anyway, for this to be a single movement of very strong material developed to the maximum, as the designation Symphony demands; so much happens in such a short space of time. The opening (Allegro molto) is buoyant, with gentle syncopation, and, if one wants to be fanciful and pictorial, the woodwind phrases might be heard as insects flitting from flower to flower; yet there is sinewy purpose evident and no lack of powerful objective and clamour, with echoes of Tippett (his middle period, Symphony 2, Midsummer Marriage) – and a better composer comparison cannot be mentioned. The succeeding movement (Lento), although contemplative initially and with enchanted woodwind solos – calm after the storm – the music grandly builds (sonorous brass, shrieks from piccolo and whip) to faster material and, despite moments that glow (optimism), a gnarled, abrupt coda is the result, suggesting that the World that we live in is greatly troubled. Musically, it’s a great piece.
A first-class release, then. The BBC recording and the studio Hallé tapings are very impressive and the performances highly skilled and wholly dedicated.