British Works for Cello and Piano, Volume 1 – Paul & Huw Watkins [Chandos]

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Sonata in A for Cello and Piano
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.6

Paul Watkins (cello) & Huw Watkins (piano)

Recorded in 2012 – 5 & 6 April (Delius, Foulds, Bantock) and 5 June in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: December 2012
Duration: 70 minutes



The combination of cello and piano is an oft-used one by British composers throughout the 20th-century. Paul and Huw Watkins look set to explore this legacy in what has the potential to be an impressive Chandos series. The first instalment brings out two substantial works that have very little in the way of recorded history, and which are in their contrasting ways extremely enjoyable.

The Cello Sonata by Hubert Parry (1880/83) is much the more traditional piece, but this early work shows many signs of a composer increasingly at ease with a lyrical style, the music flowing naturally. A meaningful model for Parry might have been the cello sonatas of Brahms, but here the more direct blueprint appears to be that of Beethoven, specifically the A major Sonata (Opus 69), to which the main theme shares a key and bears a little resemblance. There is similarity, too, in the formal design of the finale, where a short introduction heralds a grand closing movement. Paul and Huw Watkins enjoy the dialogue of thematic material, and in the first movement the principal melody stands up well to its many but varied repetitions. The slow movement is a passionate utterance, too, with the richer sound of the cello’s lower register nicely exploited, while the substantial finale, if perhaps less distinctive, is attractively poised.

By contrast, the Cello Sonata of John Foulds (1880-1939) – himself a cellist – is startlingly original when one considers the Cello Sonata of Debussy had not been written when Foulds began it in 1905. The original version of the Sonata is lost, but the piece survives in its revised form, published in Paris in 1927. Calum MacDonald’s excellent booklet note spends more time on this piece, acknowledging the technical challenges given to the pianist, met manfully by Huw Watkins, who manages to shape even the most complex of phrases.

It would be intriguing to know which of the composer’s ideas predate the Debussy work, for while it does not have the concise design of the latter composer’s Sonata, there are similar stylistic features in the harmonic language. Foulds’s piece is a fascinating, exploratory work, sprawling a little in form but with great lyrical intensity alongside unexpected innovations. The slow movement, a Lento, alights on a glorious moment of suspension in D major two minutes in, where Paul Watkins’s high-register playing has great technique and concentration. The use of quartertones in the third movement is a particularly bold step, and the cello’s multiple-stopping is a mysterious sound indeed. Returning to a more conventional approach, cello and piano unite in a canonic finale that has strong echoes of the corresponding movement in César Franck’s Violin Sonata.

Complementing these substantial works is the Cello Sonata (1916) of Delius, and Hamabdil (1919), a short Hebrew Melody by Granville Bantock, which three minutes in finds Paul Watkins alone in a passionate soliloquy. Delius’s Cello Sonata is closely integrated, Paul Watkins fully conversant with the style. The pacing feels just right, particularly at the score’s heart, just over seven minutes in, where the tempo slows and the cello sings a meditative melody, while the closing pages are a richly coloured triumph. Throughout, there is keen emotional input from both performers.

This well-balanced, highly enjoyable and excellently recorded programme begins a series that surely has numerous instalments to come, with the cello sonatas of Stanford, Bridge, Bax, Ireland and Moeran – to name just a few – hopefully being candidates for the much-anticipated forthcoming releases.

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