Talking Heads: Huw Watkins

It may not yet feel like it (in the UK at least!) but Spring is just around the corner. With a timely intervention, Huw Watkins (above) has not long had the first performance of a piece with that very title, given by the orchestra of which he is Composer-in-Association, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. When Arcana catches up with him, however, his thoughts are with a boyhood favourite, the Britten Piano Concerto – centrepiece of a concert he has curated for the orchestra.

Immediately Watkins is enthusiastic about the Britten performance, and the orchestra’s prowess. “I have to say the orchestral parts are sounding brilliant, and touch wood it’s gone pretty well. It’s a really fun piece to play, and I don’t think the orchestra have ever played this piece before. They are so quick to learn though, and the rehearsal we have just done was done in two hours rather than three!”

The Britten brings its own particular challenges. “I do play concertos but I’m a composer and chamber musician really, so I’m not on the regular circuit. It is always a bit nerve wracking playing with an orchestra again, but this is a work that I am familiar with and have known since university. I did it with the orchestra there, so got to know it very well. It’s a lovely, youthful piece, and the conductor Martyn Brabbins, who I’ve been working with, has done it a lot and knows it very well. He was really excited about this performance, and it was lovely to work with him. I play a lot of chamber music so you have to listen in a different way with the orchestra, leading rather than following.”

Watkins recalls for Arcana his first ever encounters with classical music. “It’s difficult to remember exactly, because music was always around. Paul was already playing the cello and piano, my dad was an amateur viola player, and mum was teaching in school. Before my teenage years I loved playing the piano but I had become a bit bored with it. Then I listened to Stravinsky’s Petrushka and it blew me away when I first heard it – and so did the Britten that I’m about to play! It’s so immediately likeable and fun.”

He then recalls the first meeting he had with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. “I remember that I’d written a piece in 2000, a Sinfonietta-type piece that they did with Grant Llewellyn. I’ve withdrawn it from publication now but it was a great learning piece. As a composer it’s hard to get access to an orchestra regularly so that was a really big thing. Shortly after I wrote my Piano Concerto, which I played myself with tonight’s conductor Martyn Brabbins. We go back a long way!”

How would he describe Spring in the form of a program note? “I didn’t really want to do what was just an aural picture, but the opening felt like that moment just before spring starts. A lot of pieces of music do that but it had a pregnant feel to it. Giving a title to a piece of music is really hard, because if you think of something poetic you become chained to it, but it’s nice to have something to think about in the audience. With this piece I think there is a sense of something blooming and broadening out. That was in my mind, and the idea of looking forward to spring.”

You can listen to Spring here

What are his own personal reflections on the season? “When spring comes you notice it getting lighter, and getting energy back. It would be nice to be able to have a break but the trouble with composing is that the deadlines come through thick and fast. I do need to plan a bit of a break, you can’t just keep churning it out. I do want to find time to listen to other pieces, it can be distracting to hear other people’s work when you’re writing so I generally choose not to. I’m lucky with the demand there is at the moment, the BBC NoW is a source of three commissions and writing for the orchestra is very enjoyable, if time consuming!”

Watkins divides his time between composition and the piano, and over recent years has shown himself to be an extremely quick learner. This has enabled him to record several discs of lesser-known British repertoire for cello and piano for Chandos. In partnership with cellist brother Paul Watkins, this was an experience he clearly enjoyed. “A lot of that repertoire was new to us, and I think the John Foulds Cello Sonata in particular is an absolute masterpiece. The York Bowen Cello Sonata was good too. We were lucky to do those discs. I find I’ve always been a quick sight reader but I can’t always rely on that as I get older! I want to spend more time on new pieces, but I want to concentrate on doing pieces more than once, to really get to know them.”

The challenge with such a busy schedule on both fronts is achieving balance between work as a performer and a composer. “My piano playing feeds into my creativity and my compositional life”, he says. “I think you lose a perspective if you’re not involved in live performance as a musician, and with how audiences respond.”

Some opportunities are just too good to pass though, including last year’s commission for a carol for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. “It was an incredibly inspiring thing to be asked to do. I wanted to write something simple, to write something pure and plain. The atmosphere in that service on Christmas Eve is amazing, and that’s probably my only chance to go to the service as well!”

You can discover more about Huw’s contribution to the service here

Later in the year Watkins the pianist will step forward as soloist in the Piano Concerto by Philip Cashian, an eagerly awaited world premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. “Yes, that’s something we were preparing to do this time last year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra,” Watkins recalls. “We had three days rehearsing it with Oliver Knussen and he sadly became ill on the morning of the concert, and it had to be rescheduled. It’s a really good piece, energetic and athletic. Philip is great at writing fast and rhythmically lithe music.”

Knussen is a conductor Watkins has worked with before, and who has had a considerable influence on his life as a performer and composer to date. “I find him completely inspiring”, he gushes. “I’ve been lucky to do a couple of concertos with him, the Tansy Davies and Helen Grime (Huw’s wife). He’s brilliant to hang out with too, he knows and knew so many people. I hope he writes it all down! It would be great to read a book by him eventually, especially as he’s also hilarious and very good company. He wrote a piece for the violinists Tamsin Waley-Cohen and I recently. It was the first new piece he had written since 2010, so that was really special. I think this has started him back to regular writing, and it is a truly gorgeous piece. It was a real honour. We were getting e-mails with a page a day of this amazing, handwritten score.”

Watkins counts Knussen as a lasting inspiration. “He really is one of the towering figures of the last 50 years in the music of this country, a composer with such a brilliant ear. With him it’s really important that you play the right notes, because he has thought out the harmony so thoroughly. It is so beautiful to listen to. He is definitely very high up my list, and I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of contemporary composers. Gerald Barry is another I have really enjoyed working with, and I played in his opera The Importance of Being Earnest. I admire it greatly, although it is hugely difficult to play!”

There is plenty for Watkins to explore on the instrumental front, and for now he has plenty to get his teeth into with this relatively ‘traditional’ approach. “I don’t think instruments are ‘tired out’ yet, there is still so much you can get out of it. There was a Thomas Adès piece Seven Days, a kind of video ballet, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. I wouldn’t rule it out in my own writing but there is still so much to do!”

His own music has a tonal base, with melodic points of reference, but continues to look forward int is approach, drawing a little on the past in form and function but introducing new melodic and harmonic thoughts. “That’s a nice way of putting it”, he says approvingly. “I don’t want to go back to something safe and cosy, I want to write fresh things. I’ve immersed myself in some out there music but I am now writing the music I really want to write. I get some writers who say it’s conventional but I don’t care to be honest! I think someone like Britten still did things with tonality that still make it new and fresh. If everything is self-consciously new it can be fake! It’s no good denying the tonal audacity and the hierarchy of the intervals with Britten – and shows that there are still things you can do. That’s not to say the other developments are not valid, but I wouldn’t dismiss it.”

We move on to discuss the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, now 90 years old. Watkins is hugely appreciative of their achievements and function. “I think the part I know is since the 1980s, when they became a fully fledged Symphony Orchestra. I can only speak from my own experience in the St David’s Hall, which was new then. It has become an incredibly good orchestra, but they also make an effort to go around Wales which I think is extremely important. Places like Abergavenny and Bangor would not always have a symphony orchestra near them, so it’s very important. They don’t have to worry quite so much about full houses so they can do stuff that’s off the beaten track, and it’ll also be on the radio.”

“That’s a very healthy thing. It’s good for composers to think a little bit commercially when writing, but also good that people like the BBC NoW commission these pieces. At the end of February I’m doing a workshop with young composers, and Martyn Brabbins is doing conductor masterclasses. That’s a real services because it’s hard for people to learn their craft. The orchestra does get better and better, we were so impressed with the Britten and I know that tomorrow it will be better still. Cardiff’s lucky to have the Welsh National Opera too, it improves the life of a city. I feel very lucky to be Composer in Association here, it’s been a very nice experience for me.”

Watkins will perform Philip Cashian’s Piano Concerto at the Aldeburgh Festival, part of a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oliver Knussen that will include Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Music For A Great City. For more details you can go to the Snape Maltings website

On record: Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto, Cortège, Cello Concerto No. 2 (NMC)

matthews

Colin Matthews: Cortège (1988)*. Cello Concerto No. 2 (1996)**. Violin Concerto (2009)***

***Leila Josefowicz (violin); **Anssi Kartunen (cello); *Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly; BBC Symphony Orchestra / **Rumon Gamba and ***Oliver Knussen

Summary

A welcome (and timely!) release of three major pieces by Colin Matthews, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year and whose involvement – as producer and promoter – in British contemporary music has sometimes obscured his considerable contribution as a composer.

What’s the music like?

The three works offer a viable overview of Matthews’s orchestral output over two decades. Earliest is Cortège – written for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its then Music Director Bernard Haitink, and a notable instance of the Mahlerian strain in this composer’s thinking. Unfolding over an inexorable tread, this diversifies incrementally for a convulsive central section as duly brings an intensified resumption of the initial music and an explosive culmination before subsiding into nothingness. Under Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw gives an impressive account of a ‘processional’ such as has featured prominently in modern British music (Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and John Pickard’s Channel Firing come immediately to mind), and which here sustains its monumentality with impressive purpose.

Although by no means an understated piece, the Second Cello Concerto is appreciably more varied in mood and diverse in its formal construction. Its five movements play continuously – the angular central ‘Scherzo’ framed by two ‘Song without text’ movements of an arioso-like expressiveness; these, in turn, are flanked by a ‘Declamation’ whose recitative-like austerity is transmuted in the final ‘Resolution’ towards an incisive resolve. Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom memory recalls played it rather poorly), the piece finds an admirable exponent in Anssi Karttunen, who audibly appreciates the underlying subtlety of a conception more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto’ in its emphasis. Hopefully this belated release will encourage further hearings of one of the finest such works from the past quarter-century.

The most recent piece here, the Violin Concerto (2009) was commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust, whose portfolio amounts to a fair conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements elides twice between slower and faster material with understated intent, so allowing its successor to open-out expressively via an acceleration from measured intensity to headlong propulsion at the close. The work is finely realised by Leila Josefowicz, her rendering of a solo part virtuosic for all its lack of display highlighted against an orchestra which features a diverse percussion section and duly yields an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Does it all work?

Yes. Matthews has long been a composer fighting shy of stylistic straitjackets, with the result that his diverse output sometimes lacks focus or consistency. Not so the three pieces featured here, demonstrating a keen handling of form and an equally well-integrated expressive range.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound leaves little to be desired, while the booklet notes are informative and not unreasonably enthusiastic. A pity, even so, that it has taken so long for at least two of these recordings to be made available: musicians and listeners alike need to be aware of this music.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at the NMC website