thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Huw WATKINS (b.1976)
Flute Concerto (2013) [22:19]
Violin Concerto (2010) [22:25]
Symphony (2016) [21:54]
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Adam Walker (flute)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. live, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 17 August 2010 (violin); Hallé St Peter's, 2017 (flute; symphony); NMC RECORDINGS D224 [67:02]
Welshman Huw Watkins studied at Chetham’s in Manchester. There his piano tutor was Peter Lawson, himself a well known name and a formidable music reputation. The young Watkins' composition masters were Robin Holloway, Alexander Goehr and Julian Anderson. He won the Constant and Kit Lambert Junior Fellowship (Andrew Motion's book on the three generations of Lamberts is a provocative good read) at the Royal College of Music.
Huw Watkins has already put in several distinguished appearances in these pages. There is a Composer Portrait as well as a review of the above premiere of the Violin Concerto at the Proms and of the Piano Concerto (2002) as far back as 2008. He has also collaborated in the performance of other composers' works. His piano piece Coruscation; Reflection has been endorsed by that select label USK while his Cello Sonata, played by the composer with his brother, the cellist Paul, has disc space on a collection of British cello sonatas on Nimbus. Continuing the theme, the four volumes of British music for cello and piano will not pass unnoticed in the Chandos lists: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4. The same label have also issued other collections by the duo: Martinů and American Cello Sonatas. Watkins has also written a Cello Concerto for his brother and this work was premiered at the BBC Proms under Thomas Søndergård.
The three-movement 23-minute Flute Concerto is a virtuoso lyrical work that threads and rethreads ideas of some substance and fantasy. In this sense it is up there with the Nielsen Flute Concerto. Adam Walker, who gave the premiere, is principal flautist of the London Symphony Orchestra. The composer had Walker in mind when the wrote the work. He takes all of Watkins' accelerating, explosive and thoughtful ideas and presents the music without the appearance of effortful labour. I would only take issue with it because it ends simply and quietly without, for me, any compelling sense of resolution; that was no doubt the intention but it left me in mid-air.
The Violin Concerto was composed for Alina Ibragimova. It, too, is in three movements and is about the same duration as the Flute Concerto. Opening in furious action, it presents challenges of extreme velocity and scarifying mood. In that sense it is rather like the propulsive sections of the Violin Concerto by William Schumann, although not as motionlessly statuesque. It's a mercurial work, moving among moods and tempos at speed. It has a modern feel, but more often than not one is catching echoes from the past in the shape of themes and treatments from the violin concertos of Elgar and Walton. The Concerto ends in a passive mood - a sort of sultry resignation which feels in symmetry with what has gone before. The score bears the dedication "For Alina".
Unusually, the Symphony, which is the most recent work here, is in two overture-timed movements: Allegro molto and Lento. The first of these has much in the way of leaping Transatlantic triumph (Roy Harris?). This element is alternated with the chirpy avian woodwind that we know from the Flute Concerto. The music is warm and cosseting (tr. 7 10.00). The Lento is often mobile, querulous, tender and likely to make you think of Copland in his Appalachian mood. William Schuman puts in an appearance at 6:54 but, then, so does Britten's Grimes sea music. The Symphony ends on a cliff edge of loud affirmation.
This is the second all-Huw Watkins CD on the NMC. The first (In My Craft or Sullen Art) which was issued in their "Debut Discs" series came in 2012. A chamber music collection, this disc comprised the Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments; Four Spencer Pieces for solo piano; Three Auden Songs; the Partita for solo violin played by the soloist in the Violin Concerto and In my craft or sullen art (setting Dylan Thomas) for tenor and String Quartet.
The full and fulsome liner-notes in English only are by Steph Power. They set the scene and make Watkins a less distant figure in the musical landscape. They are written in a way that encourages curiosity and further exploration.
The recordings' listening qualities are lucid, intricately detailed and rewarding. This uniformity is quite an achievement given their varying sources, locales and circumstances. This is clearly well-wrought music of the twenty-first century. There is too much in the way of well-tempered accessible invention going on for you to ever think of Watkins as a follower of Minimalism. If you are at all receptive to a traditional emotional style then this listening experience will be welcome and will prompt return visits.
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