Last week, I wrote of a viola-and-piano recital in Wigmore Hall. The program featured a new work by the pianist (Ryan Wigglesworth). Now let’s consider a violin-and-piano recital, also from Wigmore Hall. The program, once more, featured a new work by the pianist: Huw Watkins.
The recital was performed on November 16 and is available—here—for a month.
Huw Watkins is a Brit, born in South Wales in 1976. His first name is pronounced “Hugh,” in case you were wondering (as I was). The violinist was Tamsin Waley-Cohen, a Londoner. In addition to the new Watkins work, they played two sonatas by Beethoven and the sonata (the sole violin sonata) of Janáček. They also played a work written in 2016, dedicated to them.
It is by Oliver Knussen, the British composer who died in 2018. He is perhaps best known, at least on American shores, for his children’s opera Where the Wild Things Are. His piece for Waley-Cohen and Watkins is called Reflection. Apparently, it was inspired by a painting of Gauguin, depicting a woman swimming.
Reflection begins with the violin alone, which flutters and flits. Do you think of a woman swimming, and her reflection? If you have been told about the inspiration of the piece, yes. If not? I doubt it. Such is the way of almost all “program music” (music meant to portray or suggest something concrete).
The work is a little Debussyan, a little Japanesey. Finely crafted and exquisite. But not only that: it has different sections, one of which is virtuosic and energetic. The piece ends in a burst of rhapsody.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen is a beautiful and capable violinist. Not the least of her abilities is the ability to sing, violinistically. Huw Watkins is a very capable pianist as well. Both musicians were sitting down, incidentally. The pianist, of course. But Ms. Waley-Cohen is great with child, and obviously unhindered, when it comes to music-making.
The new work by Huw Watkins is a sonata. It was commissioned jointly by Wigmore Hall and Sir Vernon Ellis, an outstanding businessman—long with Accenture—and an outstanding music philanthropist. Watkins dedicated his sonata to his violinist, Waley-Cohen.
As the evening’s announcer said, the sonata is in three movements: fast, slow, fast.
The first begins gentle, lapping, sweet, wistful—very British, if I may say. In time, it becomes impassioned—even stomping—putting the violin through a workout. Yet, in the first movement, a feeling of nostalgia prevails, I think.
The second movement is arching and aching. It is not dissimilar to the first movement. It is not even dissimilar in tempo, as far as I can tell. Do the two movements have too much in common? In other words, is there too much continuity, not enough of a departure? Perhaps, but it is his piece (I said to myself).
For a stretch, the music is a little New Agey: “Lie back and see the colors.” Pleasant it is, too. I believe that the piece lapses into a little doodling—the compositional equivalent of doodling—and that it becomes a bit long. Bear in mind, however: I often think these things about new music (and occasionally about old).
The third movement continues the continuity, so to speak. It does so intelligently, too. Soon, we get some strong music—almost martial—which relieves a prior haziness. We also get what I might call a swirling rondo feeling, appropriate to the last movement of a sonata.
The work ends with the gentle beauty that marks it overall.
My guess is, this sonata has considerable personal meaning to the composer. At the same time, it can be enjoyed by all. And it is a welcome contribution to the violin repertoire (and to the violin-and-piano repertoire in particular). I also think of versatility.
For years—generations—there was no big split between the composer and the performer. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and on and on. Sometime in the early twentieth century, however, the split occurred. Musicians such as Huw Watkins help restore the unity.
In this little post, I have stressed composition, not performance. But the violinist, Tasmin Waley-Cohen? Watch for her.