The programme is notably well balanced. Bridge taught Britten. Goehr taught Watkins. An aura of pedagogy might therefore be thought to hang over the disc, but surely lineage is a better perception. In any case the four sonatas occupy their own discrete expressive worlds and call for particular technical and emotive responses. The generic will not do, and fortunately in the case of these 2001 recordings, the Watkins brothers prove laudable exponents of this quartet of works.
This is not to say their approaches are necessarily the last word on matters, though one would be hard pressed to imagine a performance superior to the one Huw gives of his own sonata. Bridge’s sonata was written in 1915 and was premiered and popularised by one of the leading British cellists of the day, Felix Salmond. It’s not written in a conventional form – there are two longish movements – but it packs a powerful punch. The Watkins duo performs it with nobility and refinement. They respond to its changeability with quick reflexes and considerable insight into the idiom. Their ensemble is watertight and they manage to extract considerable pathos and lyricism at the apex of the first movement. The piano chimes in the second movement, and Paul Watkins’s lean and urgently vibrated lament, are equally fine. Nevertheless comparison with Rostropovich (with Britten, or with Dedukhin, both in 1968 – for the latter see Brilliant 92771) shows an alternative, even more urgent way with it. At a greater tensile quotient, the rubati seem more seamless and the range of colours evoked rather greater. Watkins deliberately doesn’t change colour as much as Rostropovich; as a result his performance is less passionate but arguably equally reflective of the music.
Britten’s Sonata in C is another work strongly associated with the Russian cellist. In fact the cello part was edited by him. Its five movements offer rich opportunities for dialogue, pizzicato precision, an expressive lament, a strongly etched march and a virtuosic moto perpetuo
finale. These opportunities for characterisation are duly taken by the duo that plays with verve, imagination and tasteful control. This is not to imply that they downplay things; they don’t. But naturally, as with the Bridge sonata, Rostropovich brought a huge compendium of colouristic passion to this music and his performance with the composer (Decca 4218592), which is coupled with the Suites 1 and 2, is the unavoidable Parnassus.
Alexander Goehr’s 1984 sonata is a compound of lyricism and terseness. The piano’s elliptical line encourages the cello’s inherently lyric resources. And the central Recitando
for the cello reinforces the feeling that Goehr is summoning up a colloquy of voicings, a kind of interior dialogue that embraces pizzicato and higher and lower registers in quick succession. A system of voicings is set up, one that proves powerful and impressive. And in the finale, as one expects – and gets – an urgent dynamism we are soon confounded by more introverted material. This is a multi-faceted, compact work of stature.
Unsettled and questing Watkins’ 2000 sonata conveys its terse and restless spirit with hugely persuasive resources. Listless melancholic hints in the central Lento
add a weight of expressive rhetoric to the argument. Largely introverted, the music finally comes to animated life in the finale where the piano’s rippling independence, and the cell-like increasingly confident cello motifs, encourage the latter briefly but with great effect to soar ecstatically into the heights.
Nimbus provides a well balanced recording and helpful notes, This British cello conspectus spans a good eighty years – the past and the living present.