These are meaty, powerful and assured performances, technically impressive, and disclosing once again the expected first class ensemble values cultivated by the Watkins duo. They are keen to stress the vertiginous aspects of the writing, mining every opportunity to characterise richly. There is intense energy and vitality here, and auditors will be rightly impressed by the biting sense of purpose generated. That said, there are certainly other ways of doing things.
In the First Sonata the Watkins brothers find the capricious undertow that launches so much of the writing, as they do the tensile animation. Huw Watkins clearly locates an almost impressionist sense in the staccati that open the central movement. The subsequent development is a maelstrom of almost unhinged writing, and the later pizzicato episode sounds Zemlinskian in its spookiness. The fast tempo of the finale arguably means the music is less manic than a slower one would be – but the Watkins duo take the faster option.
Their approach is a sinewy, molten one throughout. The trenchant approach to the Second Sonata is certainly consistent, its volatility malleable and worrying. For all this volatility I was surprised that the dynamic level in the second movement wasn’t slightly more varied, though the playing is certainly subtly coloured, angst-filled, and even lurid in places. Heavyweight bowing is a feature of the performances generally, which is not to imply that Paul Watkins is insensitive but rather that his approach is explicitly to be contrasted with others who have essayed this repertoire. I happen to find the duo rather tiring in this respect, and wish that they could be persuaded to relax tempi and tonal weight. I also wish Paul Watkins’s cadential passage in the finale of this sonata had not been so heavily vibrated.
The opening of the Third Sonata always strikes me as Martinu’s ‘Policka Carillon’. The sense of nostalgia is pervasive, but whilst the Czech duo of Chuchro and Hála are affectionate and lyric, the Watkins duo reprise the tough love approach that they do, consistently it must be noted, display throughout. The Juliette theme is rather hammered out, and this heavy on the pedal and on the vibrato approach tends to minimise the more playful elements of the music. It’s no surprise that their slow movement is really fast. They sound a touch embarrassed by the opening pizzicato figures if taken slowly, so whip through them. It’s really more of an Allegretto than an Andante. I know the sonata was dedicated to the memory of Hans Kindler but Huw Watkins, in particular, really pile drives his way through it, as he did, rather showily, in the finale of the First.
The two Variations are useful pendants. The Variations on a Slovak Theme is now a recital and disc favourite and rightly so, whilst less often heard but captivating is the Variations on a Theme of Rossini, which was composed just after the Second Sonata.
The recording was made at ubiquitous Potton Hall and captures the ambience well. A dry chilly acoustic was accorded the Mattia Zappa/Massimiliano Mainolfi recording of the sonatas. Saša Vectomov and Josef Pálenícek’s Supraphon set – which includes both variations - has replaced the old Josef Chuchro/Josef Hála performances. This older performance remains my preferred one. Newcomers however will note the divergences that these sonatas can withstand.