Huw Watkins’s Violin Concerto

Composer Portrait
Huw Watkins
Four Inventions
Sad Steps
Musicians from the Royal College of Music; Huw Watkins (conductor & piano)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 42
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Huw Watkins
Violin Concerto [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Alina Ibragimova (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Edward Gardner. Photograph: Jillian Edelstein, Camera Press LondonHad Edward Gardner followed the programme’s advice that the Pärt would “be followed without a break by” the Britten then an interesting and complementary contrast would have been set-up between the Estonian’s heartfelt tribute – albeit its simple repeated refrain doesn’t really sustain five minutes (the tolling bell saying it all) – and Britten’s shadowy evocation of ‘Dawn’. As it was, Gardner sustained a long silence to conclude the Pärt, then stopped conducting, and ruinous applause ensued. The ‘Grimes Interludes’ were a little staid, lacking intensity, the letter of the score captured punctiliously rather than its spirit; surprising given Gardner’s inspired conducting of “Peter Grimes” at English National Opera in May 2009.

A similar objectivity undermined the first two movements of Shostakovich 5, the first lacking ignition and inner tension, the second irony. Thoroughly prepared as it was, with generally excellent and disciplined playing, greater identification with the music from all concerned was needed to raise this expert reading of the notes into something more meaningful. Gardner seemed at one-remove from proceedings, so that his occasional interventions seemed adjuncts rather than integrated; the dragged-out close of the scherzo was no more than point-making (and backfired when the oboist missed a note!). With the slow movement, something deep and lamenting emerged and intensified to a glowering climax. Gardner’s deliberate and trenchant way with the finale also paid dividends, embracing both acceleration and the movement’s slow build to triumph or false rejoicing, Gardner (like Kurt Masur) going for a massively robotic coda in which non-belief came into its own.

In the pre-concert event, Huw Watkins (born 1976) was a genial interviewee who let his music do the talking. Gig (a successor to Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro) delights in the spirit of the dance (jig) and musicians coming together to play, a score of lyrical teasing and not a few shadows, an 8-minute fantasia always worth catching. Watkins conducted and then switched to the piano (on which he is a considerable performer) for his Four Inventions, commissioned by Rhett Griffiths for his sister Sarah; each one ear-catching, the two slow Inventions revealing a touching simplicity. Sad Steps (for string sextet and piano) was the ‘big piece’, 15 minutes. Based on Philip Larkin’s poem, this is dark music, in turmoil and haunted, suggesting the troubled place between being awake and asleep. As in Gig, the students of the Royal College of Music displayed great talent and commitment, and Watkins’s surety as a pianist in his own music made for compelling listening.

Alina Ibragimova. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgWatkins’s new Violin Concerto proves a very likeable addition to the repertoire, its three concise movements (totalling 20 minutes) sometimes seeming a surprising throwback to Bartók, Prokofiev and Szymanowski (to various degrees), the ‘innocent ear’ might have guessed at a piece dating from the 1940s or 1950s and probably from an American composer, maybe Samuel Barber of William Schuman (2010 brings their centenaries) before finally settling on Peter Mennin. With an orchestra of classical proportions to which is added trombones, harp and a little percussion (no timpani), Watkins has created a diverting and likeable piece that engages rhythmically and touches the heart in the lyrical passages. Written for Alina Ibragimova, who played superbly, this work’s restful conclusion seemed inevitable. Ibragimova offered an encore, the finale of Watkins’s Partita, a fiery movement that didn’t quite work out of context and also unfortunately stole the concerto’s first appearance. Better to have let the new piece resonate in the mind a little longer.

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