Voices from the Sea – Music by John Hawkins

0 of 5 stars

Voices from the Sea (tenor and strings)
Variations (piano)
Waiting: Tango (viola and double bass)
Brief Encounters (flute and viola)
Worlds apart (double bass and piano)
Shadows (viola, double bass and piano)
Disturbed Nights (oboe)
Gestures (two violas)
Quietus (string trio)

Martyn Hill (tenor)
Antony Pay

Nancy Ruffer (flute)
Christopher O’Neal (oboe)
Siân Philipps (violin)
Yuko Inouë (viola)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
Duncan McTier (double bass)
Kathron Sturrock (piano)

Voices from the sea recorded at St John’s Smith Square London in 1985, the first performance on 3 April; the other works were also recorded at St John’s, no information supplied regarding dates

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: October 2003

Biographical information provided by Meridian is scanty, but we are informed that John Hawkins was born in 1949 and studied composition at the City Literary Institute and, subsequently, with Malcolm Williamson and Elisabeth Lutyens.

The music on this disc suggests a composer who is thoroughly steeped in what might be termed the ’mainstream’ of British music, with distinct echoes of Britten and Tippett – amongst others – and an essentially lyrical bent. Hawkins joins the ranks of many composers whose works are inspired by the sea. His Sea Symphony was commissioned by The Marine Society in 1980 and Hawkins followed this with the song-cycle Voices from the Sea.

With interesting texts from an anthology containing seafarers’ poems, this recording is of the first performance, and very fine and communicative it is. [Save the channels are reversed! – Ed.] The string accompaniment to the first song instantly suggests aquatic undulation and hints at turbulence, but the mood is varied between each of the six settings. Martyn Hill is responsive to the expressive demands of each, and the string orchestra and tenor voice combination is immediately reminiscent of Britten’s writing for that medium, although it is Britten’s troubled Nocturne (which features solo parts for other instruments) that springs most readily to mind.

Nevertheless, Hawkins’s response to the literary images is distinctive. Particularly effective is the fifth song – A laugh in the wind – with its disturbing initial line “One of the lads was killed today”. Hawkins opens his setting with a decidedly queasy waltz-like figure for double basses, soon joined by angular lines from the other instruments. Some haunting sonorities characterise the concluding “Sailor’s Warning”, which ultimately suggests an uneasy kind of resolution.

The playing, singing, and Anthony Pay’s direction all seem poised and assured. At some twenty-minutes’ duration, Voices from the Sea is the most substantial item on this disc.

The other pieces are chamber works for various combinations, and, in two instances, solos. The Variations for piano, sympathetically played by Kathron Sturrock, contains an intriguing ’working out’ of the theme, with idiomatic piano writing and variegated textures adding to the interest.

Disturbed Nights, for oboe solo, exploits that instrument’s sonority and characteristics, which might well hold true for the other chamber compositions.

Of particular note are those featuring the double bass in a much more lyrical mode than is so often the case. Indeed, the careful writing and the empathy demonstrated by Duncan McTier is most persuasive, and these pieces may encourage listeners to hear the instrument in a new light.

In fact, John Hawkins is fortunate in his performers since all the music is extremely well played, and sympathetically recorded. The resonant space of St John’s lends a welcoming ambience to the programme. The composer provides succinct notes, and this release demonstrates Meridian’s admirable and continuing commitment to British music.

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