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British Works for Cello and Piano - Volume 4
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Partita Op. 35 (1959) [20:20]
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Constants Op. 110 (1976) [12:43]
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008)
Sonata No. 2 Op. 96 No. 1 (1977) [14:43]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012)
Sonata (1991) [19:47]
Paul Watkins (cello); Huw Watkins (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 2014
CHANDOS CHAN10862 [67:35]

This is the fourth in a now well-established series in which the Watkins brothers work their way through the substantial repertoire for cello and piano by twentieth century British composers (see reviews of Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3). We have here four varied works, two of which – the Leighton and the Richard Rodney Bennett – are really fine.

Kenneth Leighton is a composer I always enjoy. With his roots in the traditions of English music but with sympathy for European modernism he writes works which are always attractive and yet have some bite. Anthony Burton is his helpful sleeve-note explains that the term 'Partita' was used in the eighteenth century for a work in several movements and was revived in the twentieth for an abstract work which was not in sonata form. So Leighton’s Partita has three movements, but none of them is in sonata form. On starting to listen to it I was immediately impressed by the superb recording: the piano is resonant and clear without being boomy, in a good acoustic for chamber music, and the cello can be heard clearly without being boosted to an unreal prominence. Chandos have had plenty of experience recording this team so it is not surprising they get it right. The work begins with an intense Elegy that has a wandering chromatic line in the cello which suggests Berg, or perhaps Frank Bridge, over a grumbling bass in the piano. Burton compares the scherzo which follows to Walton and indeed it has his kind of syncopations and jabbing accents but I also hear some Bartók in it. This is not to decry Leighton’s originality but simply to give a sense of the idiom. There follows a set of variations which are very varied indeed, but they begin and end with bell-like sounds in the piano. The variations also take the opportunity to return to the moods of the earlier movements. This is a fine work and a worthy addition to the recordings of Leighton’s chamber music.

Elisabeth Lutyens had a hard time of it, both for being a woman and for being an early adopter of Schoenberg’s serial technique. Neither of these attributes endeared her to the musical establishment of the time. She had some prominence towards the end of her life but since then has largely disappeared again. The present work was written during the heyday of aleatoric music, in this case meaning that the lengths of some of the notes are free though their coordination is prescribed. I have no aversion to serial music, and some aleatoric techniques work well enough – after all composers as different as Boulez and Lutoslawski used them – but this work, though comparatively short, is heavy going. The first movement has the thin and fragmentary textures one associates with Webern. The second starts with an expressionist cello line over a throbbing bass. This is promising, but soon peters out into sighs from the cello and isolated notes from the piano. The third features two-note wails, apparently suggested by Lutyens’ cries of ‘Edward, Edward’ when her husband died. The story is poignant but the music does not satisfy. To check I was not being unfair I listened to Webern’s three little pieces for cello and piano, his Op. 11. These are aphoristic and also pre-serial, but in a similar idiom to Lutyens. They say more, with fewer notes and in less time than she does. Truly composition is a hard master.

Alun Hoddinott is also said to have been interested in Bartók and in serialism but you would hardly guess it from the cello sonata here, the second of three he wrote. The first movement features a long winding cello line, chromatic enough to give a nod to Bartók but otherwise very much in the romantic tradition. The second movement is rather similar but slower, with some filigree work for the piano. By this time one is longing for something faster. The finale is a Prokofiev-like scherzo, but, alas, without that composer’s mordant wit or piquant harmonies. In fact this is a dull work, which the eloquence of the players, and in particular of Paul Watkins’ long expressive line, cannot save. How I wish they had chosen the Rawsthorne sonata instead – but they have already recorded that – or that William Mathias or Grace Williams had written a cello sonata if they wanted a Welsh work.

In contrast everything I have ever heard of Richard Rodney Bennett has been delightful – not necessarily profound but always well-made and attractive. He made the opposite journey from the other composers here, from severe modernism – he studied with Boulez – to a more traditional tonal language. He was also very versatile, composing film music and accompanying jazz as well as writing serious music. His sonata is everything that Hoddinott’s is not: it is varied in texture, tempo and mood, and when he wants to be fierce, as in his Feroce third movement, he really is.

Throughout this disc we can enjoy Paul Watkins’ eloquent cello playing: a wonderful tone, immaculate technique and a habit of shaping every phrase and playing throughout each note. Huw Watkins is an elegant and refined pianist: I can imagine him playing Ravel, but he concentrates, most admirably, on contemporary repertoire and he is also active as a composer.

The Leighton is the most important work here, and it is the only one of which there are currently rival recordings. Two of these are on all-Leighton discs (with Raphael Wallfisch (here and here) and Andrew Fuller as cellists) and his admirers might prefer to seek them out. For the others, these are the only current versions, though I am surprised that players who admire Hoddinott’s cello sonata more than I did have not put together a disc of all three of his cello sonatas.

I do wish that Chandos would name the composers on the CD spine rather than the volume in their series, which is of little interest or help to the purchaser or owner. Hyperion, who also produce many series, have a preferable approach here.

Stephen Barber