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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
MERIDIAN CDE 84496 [70.34]


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John Hawkins was a student of composition at London's City Literary Institute. Later he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and Malcolm Williamson. I sought out this CD based on my favourable impressions of Hawkins's Sea Symphony broadcast by the BBC in 1982. The symphony was commissioned in 1980 by The Marine Society. They even went so far as to send the composer on a voyage; no cruise-liner though. Instead they sent him on a container ship. When the 20 or so minute work was played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uri Segal it came across as a vivid pictorial impression of the lonely marine wastes - tonal, melodic and with profound intentions.

Having complete the Symphony the composer wanted to follow it with a vocal piece on the same subject. Dr Ronald Hope, first director of The Seafarers' Education Service, pointed Hawkins towards an anthology of poems called Voices from the Sea. The live recording here is of the 1985 premiere. The words are printed in full in the booklet.

Martyn Hill is at ease with his often declamatory role singing over a strenuous torrent of string writing typical of 1930s and 1940s Britten (Serenade) and Tippett (Concerto for Double String Orchestra) in the first song and wispily insubstantial in the second. Crow's Nest is conspiratorial, full of melodic touches (also evident in the last song) and inventive. The murderous cold-hearted sea is reflected in Home is the Sailor and A Laugh in the Wind. The polar draw of home and sea holds the sailor in pained equipoise in Sailor's Warning. This cycle would pair well with Geoffrey Bush's Farewell Earth’s Blisse, Summer Serenade and Hesperides as well as the late Carey Blyton’s superb song-cycle Lachrymae and The Dark Forest, a fine song cycle for the self-same forces by Pamela Harrison.

The remaining fifty minutes are occupied by a sequence of chamber pieces, mostly of miniature scale. The piano Variations freely migrate between dissonance and tonality in a series of mood paintings which, unlike some sets of variations, do not sound academic. Waiting, with its snivelling viola, is morose. The three Brief Encounters, Gestures and Shadows suggest episodes in some psychologically equivocal wasteland between life and death although in the case of Shadows remembered dance is an element (not a step distant from Ravel's La Valse). The threatening mists continue in Worlds Apart though in music that sometimes suggests Bloch. Disturbed Nights calls out in imperious modesty with playing that recalls the desolating woodwind voices in Warlock's The Curlew; a very fine piece indeed and devastatingly effective for a completely unaccompanied oboe. Quietus would pair nicely with William Alwyn's String Trio being severe and uncompromising. Both composers wrote or have written symphonies with romantic aspirations or consummation but both could write with rigour as well - Quietus is an example as is Alwyn's Trio and Second Symphony.

Hawkins’s is a distinctive and instantly engaging voice on the British scene. He is not alone (listen also to the music of Lionel Sainsbury, Arthur Butterworth and Matthew Curtis) but tragically it seems that such composers must struggle against an indifference engendered by the avant-garde institutional elitism inculcated in the 1950s and the following three decades. I hope that circumstances will permit the recording of Hawkins' Sea Symphony and his choral work, This World.

Rob Barnett



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