The second volume of the Watkins brothers’ survey of British cello works invariably pays necessary homage to one of the most potent of native cellists, Beatrice Harrison. All three works are very much ‘her’ works, all having been premiered by her. Indeed all were composed in the years 1921-23 and, whilst very different stylistically, they reveal just how eloquently British composers were writing for the cello.
York Bowen’s Sonata has been recorded before but never so powerfully as here. The Watkins duo catches the virtuosic sweep of the music vesting it with fast tempi, dynamic variance, and colouristic breadth. They catch the impulsive quality of the music well. They do this without at all downplaying the serioso
quality of the slow movement, take it at a forward-moving tempo, whilst ensuring that they rise to the crest of the phrases with great richness of tone. Huw Watkins plays the little dappled piano writing with considerable warmth. In the finale I’m sure Harrison would have enjoyed essaying some rich portamentos and expressive shifts but they, very largely, are not much part of this contemporary duo’s arsenal. I rather miss that, but appreciate that their aesthetic is different. This is certainly a bigger, faster and more overtly virtuosic reading than that by the Endymion Ensemble players, Jane Salmon and Michael Dussek, on a fine all-Bowen Dutton Epoch CDLX7120 disc.
I’m not sure why the Bax Sonata hasn’t been recorded more often, though it does take a structure-conscious team to steer its way through the work’s length and complexities. The broodingly romantic writing is contemporary with the first two symphonies and there’s a chamber-symphonic quality to the music’s density. It’s greatly to the duo’s credit that they are able, so seamlessly and logically, to phrase through the slow movement whilst obeying the instructions without any signs of awkwardness. At a slower tempo, such as that adopted by Florence Hooton and Wilfred Parry back in 1958 [Lyrita REAM.2104], there is a danger of gears changing from the molto tranquillo
back to the tempo primo.
Note, too, how well the Watkins team plays the Poco piu lento
section of the finale, taking it sufficiently buoyantly (but without unduly rushing it) so that it connects again with the re-establishment of the initial tempo.
Composed in the same year as Bax’s Sonata, John Ireland’s is by far the best known and most recorded of the trio. Once again, as in the case of the Bowen and Bax, Beatrice Harrison didn’t leave behind a recording of the Ireland. By the time it was recorded Ireland had been teamed with Spanish cellist Antoni Sala and their 1928 recording is on Dutton. I do hope however that the BBC - or someone else - will release the composer’s much later broadcast performance with Anthony Pini. Both these performances show how Ireland, notorious for his strict insistence on fellow musicians following his lead and not playing too fast, wanted his music to ‘go’. Though as close listeners to his own recordings know the results seem not always to align with what he said. In the case of the Watkins duo they’re at it again. They take a very fast tempo for the first movement. In fact I’m not sure if it’s faster than I’ve ever heard it - but it matters rather more whether the music emerges structurally intact, which I think it does. Once again they’re at pains to bind the Largamente
sections and not to let them become too becalmed. By contrast they don’t push the slow movement too hard and are right up to tempo in the finale. There are other fine performances on disc, such as the famed old Navarra-Parkin on Lyrita, Julian Lloyd Webber and John McCabe on ASV (not dissimilar tempi to Sala and Ireland) and the Nash Ensemble’s Karine Georgian and Ian Brown on Chandos, who are just a touch majestic, perhaps, in the opening movement. As an old codger flying kites, I’d like someone to restore the Revolution LP of Derek Simpson and Leonard Cassini. My copy is gritty and I want to retire it.
I’ve sometimes found the Watkins duo just a little cool in this kind of repertoire and I dare say that other pairings might care to elongate phrases and bring more overt warmth to bear. Here, however, I’m impressed by their acute concern for structural integrity and fine tonal projection. There are also fine notes and the Potton Hall recording quality is first-class. I’m eagerly looking forward to volume 3.
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