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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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John HAWKINS (b.1949)
Voices from the Sea (1985) [20.10]
Variations for Piano [11.52]
Waiting - Tango for viola and double bass [4.10]
Brief Encounters for flute and viola [5.15]
Worlds Apart for double bass and piano [9.33]
Shadows for viola, double bass and piano [3.20]
Disturbed Nights for oboe [6.18]
Gestures (1998) for two violas [4.48]
Quietus for string trio [4.26]
Martyn Hill (ten)
Divertimenti/Antony Pay
Kathron Sturrock (piano)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Duncan McTier (double bass)
Nancy Ruffer (flute)
Yuko Inouë (viola)
Christopher O'Neal (oboe)
Siân Philips (violin)
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
rec. St. John's Smith Square, London, DDD. Voices from the Sea recorded live in April 1985
MERIDIAN CDE 84496 [70.34]

 

Although the name of John Hawkins will be new to many he is a composer with a substantial body of work to his credit. His 1980 Sea Symphony, the work on which his reputation chiefly rests to date, has been broadcast on more than one occasion. This Meridian release is the first disc to be solely devoted to his music and is therefore particularly welcome, showing him to be a composer of sound technique with a clear sense of craftsmanship.

Hawkins’ principal teachers were Elizabeth Lutyens and Malcolm Williamson, although it is perhaps to the latter that his music is closest stylistically. The language is broadly rooted in tonality whilst not shying away from the use of dissonance where the dramatic context of the music dictates. In Voices from the Sea, the song cycle that Hawkins wrote immediately following his Sea Symphony, there is also a feeling of the presence of Britten at times, notably in the string writing and the dramatic sweep of the melodic lines, but the music is no less effective for it and Hawkins shows that he is able to create a sense of atmosphere that is very much his own.

The six poems used were selected by the composer from submissions to the annual poetry competition of The Seafarers Education Service, each reflecting differing aspects of life at sea and being wide ranging in their dramatic breadth and subject. Scored for tenor and strings, this live recording is of the first performance in April 1985 and Martyn Hill is on fine form, giving strong, colourful and vivid accounts of all six songs.

The eight remaining works are all for more modest chamber forces and range from the solo oboe in Disturbed Nights, to various combinations of strings and piano. Indeed, a glance through Hawkins list of compositions reveals that works for strings form an important thread through his output. This is no doubt partly due to his close collaboration with violist Paul Silverthorne and double bassist Duncan McTier. McTier has probably done more for the solo double bass repertoire than any other player and Worlds Apart, commissioned by him in 1996, is an inventive, virtuoso showpiece that exploits the many differing facets of a much underestimated solo instrument. Here Hawkins succeeds not only in displaying the technical possibilities of the instrument but also in creating a compelling sense of musical drama. McTier figures again in Waiting: Tango, this time in duet with Paul Silverthorne whose largely lyrical viola line is beautifully played in an enigmatic miniature that once again places the double bass in an unfamiliar yet effective role as musical protagonist.

Of the other works for strings, Gestures, for two violas, is a dramatic, virtuosic duo of an intensity that defies its relative brevity. In contrast Quietus, for string trio, begins elegiacally but soon develops into a concise, lyrically charged single movement that provides further evidence of Hawkins dramatic gestural abilities. Shadows, adds piano to viola and double bass and is a response to a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, proceeding atmospherically from rippling, mysterious piano figurations and transforming itself into a central waltz before returning to the twilit world of the opening bars. Brief Encounters is a terser affair, slightly more astringent in its three fleeting movements and imaginatively utilising the textural contrasts of the solo viola and flute.

The Variations for piano is the most ambitious of the works after Voices of the Sea and also the longest at just under twelve minutes. The eight highly contrasting variations on the opening chordal theme culminate in a passacaglia, with Hawkins effectively negotiating the various transitions from the nostalgic to the occasionally violent through which the music passes on its journey. Disturbed Nights for solo oboe, shows a very different use of variation form, a cumulatively intense response to an initial lullaby like theme that takes as its starting point a parent’s increasing desperation for its child to sleep. Hawkins here makes considerable demands on the soloist and Christopher O’Neal reciprocates with playing of impressive technique and lyrical charge.

Hawkins’ music is not marred by unnecessary flamboyance but rather distinguished by its innate sincerity. All of these works, whether small or large in scale, are emotionally involving and impressively measured in their expression. Proof that he is capable of sweeping gesture on a larger scale is evident in Voices from the Sea. I have heard few contemporary song cycles that capture both beauty and austerity as vividly.

Christopher Thomas

Hubert Culot has also listened to this disc

At a little over twenty minutes, Hawkins’ song cycle Voices from the Sea is by far the most substantial work here. In 1980 the Marine Society commissioned Hawkins’ large-scale orchestral work Sea Symphony which drew many favourable comments at the time of its first performance. The composer wanted to follow it with a vocal piece, also inspired by the sea. The director of the Seafarers Education Service suggested a recently published anthology of entries to its annual poetry competition Voices from the Sea. The composer selected six poems for his song cycle. These poems in which sailors reflect on their feelings when at sea offered considerable scope for musical characterisation, always clearly evoked but never overdone by the composer. Loneliness at night, longing for home and the often harsh realities of a sailor’s life are vividly translated into music, in turn dreamy, sad, dramatic or bittersweet, in which the sea – as in Britten’s Peter Grimes – is always present, if at times in the background. I was particularly impressed by the third movement Crow’s Nest and the fourth movement Home is the Sailor, the latter depicting a wreckage but ending with a deeply moving coda. The whole cycle is a beautifully varied, contrasted, and often moving achievement that does not pale when compared to Britten’s orchestral song cycles. The superb string writing often brings Britten but also Grace Williams to mind, but none the worse for that. Quite the contrary, and one cannot but wonder why this magnificent piece of music is not heard more often. The sound of the live recording of the work’s first performance is quite satisfying indeed, and the performance itself is excellent.

All the other pieces, for various instrumental combinations, are much shorter but never lightweight. In fact, the Variations for piano is a minor masterpiece in its own right and a quite substantial piece of music that should appeal to any pianist willing to add an accessible modern work to his/her repertoire.

There are not that many substantial works for double bass and piano, so that Hawkins’s sizeable, often virtuosic Worlds Apart is a most welcome, worthwhile addition to this instrument’s rather scant repertoire.

Disturbed Night for solo oboe is another set of variations in all but the name, and yet another fairly substantial work in much the same league as Britten’s Metamorphoses and Francis Routh"s Tragic Interludes.

Most other pieces are, as already mentioned, rather shorter. Some of them are written for unusual instrumental forces such as the bittersweet Waiting: Tango (for viola and double bass), the short suite of three concise, contrapuntal movements Brief Encounters (for flute and viola), the superbly crafted miniature Shadows (for viola, double bass and piano) and Gestures (for two violas) which is a concise work of some virtuosity. The final item Quietus for string trio based on Hawkins’ earlier viola piece Urizen was written for a concert in memory of Silverthorne’s wife Mary. This beautifully moving miniature provides this varied and appealing selection of Hawkins’ beautifully crafted music with a peaceful, moving conclusion.

Hawkins’ sincere, honest and impeccably written music is clearly the work of a distinguished musician who obviously has things to say and who knows how to say them in accessible, communicative terms likely to appeal to larger audiences without ever compromising or writing down to them. Well worth looking for.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Rob Barnett



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