Huw Watkins Premiere

La Péri
Concerto for viola and cello [World premiere]
Petrushka [1947 version with concert ending]

Philip Dukes (viola) & Josephine Knight (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 4 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the many things the Proms does well is to provide a sympathetic context for new music. I am not referring to the audience, usually disposed toward the unfamiliar (although, in my experience of the Arena, not without its Cro-Magnon element), but to programme-planning which surrounds the ‘novelty’ (Henry Wood’s terminology) with repertory works that have the right balance and connection to it. In this Prom, two ballet scores premiered in Paris within a year of each other flanked the first performance of a concerto by Huw Watkins. In the mysterious ways of such things – hard to pin down, yet tangible also – the juxtaposition worked.

Although Huw Watkins’s music has had a fair amount of exposure over the last few years (he is also an accomplished pianist and performs in a duo with his cellist-brother Paul), this high-profile premiere was my first exposure to his work. I liked it a lot. A concerto for viola and cello is the sort of pairing which appears inevitable – until you try to think of other examples (discounting Strauss’s Don Quixote), so the premise was quietly revolutionary. The timbral similarity of the two instruments (as a ‘young person’ I never could tell when the viola variation had ended and the cello one begun in Britten’s ‘Guide’) is such that in tandem they can appear to be a single instrument with an abnormally wide pitch range. Watkins’s writing for exploits this to the full, presenting us with an unusually co-operative duo with scarcely a hint of the sparring common in ‘double concertos.

The work is cast in a conventional three-movement structure. The orchestra is on the small side and the scoring consistently favours sub-groupings rather than tuttis. The orchestration is in fact an object lesson in how not to drown these reticent instruments. In its partiality to the very high and very low, leaving the middle bandwidth free for the viola and cello to graze, the scoring had the spare clarity of Britten’s Cello Symphony. If this prevented the work from being able to raise its voice very much, it did nevertheless allow for much textural subtlety.

Stylistically the work veered between a Tippett-like luminosity and a slightly more anonymous classicism. The first movement lost no time in setting up these parameters and yielded a flow of memorable musical ideas that was a pleasure to follow. The finale, likewise an allegro, was built around a refrain of hocketing triads in the orchestra. But it was the central slow movement that made the most impression, exploring a ruminative lyricism that seems altogether Watkins’s own.

Philip Dukes and Josephine Knight, for whom the concerto was written, amply repaid their debt to the composer who has written so idiomatically and gratefully for their instruments and provided them with a highly attractive work that I think has an assured future. My one caveat – unfair perhaps after just one hearing of his music – is that Watkins’s own future looks just a shade too assured – turning out well-crafted and accessible compositions in response to increasingly prestigious commissions, with some performing and composition-teaching on the side. I hope he will delve even deeper into his art and produce work which is its own raison d’être rather than a polished product for the next commission.

A rare outing for Dukas’s La Péri began the concert (happily including Fanfare that Dukas later bolted onto the beginning of the work to help still an audience!). La Péri has something of the elusiveness of Debussy’s (slightly later) Jeux but without its mesmerising originality. The sylvan, gossamer orchestration – even the tuttis sound delicate – was beautifully realised by BBCNOW and its new Guest Conductor Jac van Steen with immaculate dynamic shadings and real pianissimos. The score rotates (but barely develops) the four musical ‘gestures’ heard at the outset and is full of ear-catching detail but ultimately lacks the defining presence of a real musical voice.

The rather tepid treatment of the glittering opening of Petrushka (given in the slimmed-down scoring of 1947) did not bode well. However, about five minutes in, the performance suddenly came into sharp focus under van Steen’s clear, no-nonsense direction and delivered an incisive reading with crisp rhythmic articulation and with the many solos well taken. Alas, the use of the ‘concert ending’ deprived us of some of the best music!

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