Huw Watkins

Live | BBC NOW Composer’s Portrait: Huw Watkins

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff,

BBC National Orchestra of Wales Composer’s Portrait: Huw Watkins

Programme: Anthem, Speak Seven Seas, Remember, Partita, Double Concerto

Conductor: Garry Walker
Soloists: Lesley Hatfield, Violin / Philip Dukes, Viola / Josephine Knight, Cello / Robert Plane, Clarinet / Huw Watkins, Piano / Ruby Hughes, Soprano


Last Wednesday’s Composer’s Portrait at BBC Hoddinott Hall saw the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of Garry Walker, presenting a series of works by its new Composer in Association, Huw Watkins.*

Watkins’ relationship with BBC NOW goes back some sixteen years, having begun in 2000 whent the orchestra commissioned and premiered his Sinfonietta. This concert contained seven pieces spanning the decade from 2004 to 2014 and highlighting the diversity of Watkins’ work. The programme eschewed chronological order, rather taking us on a sort of round trip, beginning in 2005 and ending in 2004, which served to illustrate the contrast between the composer’s earlier and more recent pieces, and his compositional development over time.

The evening started with Anthem, a short work for chamber orchestra which carried a sense of unsettled nervousness throughout; it was dominated by quick, extreme changes in dynamic, with very quiet sections interspersed with short bursts of intensely rhythmic, almost militaristic passages. The most striking moments occurred in the shape of melodic fragments which appeared in the strings in the final, quieter section, creating a sense of focus towards the end of the piece.

Clarinettist, Robert Plane and violist, Philipp Dukes were joined on stage by the composer on piano for his trio, Speak Seven Seas, dating from 2010-11. This piece had a strongly impressionistic feel: the interweaving of melodic lines in the clarinet and viola with a gentle, undulating piano accompaniment beautifully conjured ripples of water. The piece convinced mainly through its elegant interplay of textural and linear writing.

Huw Watkins: credit JMEnternational/Redferns
Huw Watkins: credit JMEnternational/Redferns

One of the concert’s highlights was also the most recent piece, a song cycle entitled Remember, written in 2014 for soprano Ruby Hughes, who was also the soloist on this occasion. The piece is in four continuous movements, each based on a poem and themes from Watkins’ 2012 chamber opera, In the Locked Room. The first movement, based on Christina Rossetti’s Remember, is dominated by almost hypnotically oscillating string textures and rapidly changing dynamics. The second, Shut out That Moon, based on the Thomas Hardy poem, had an agitated, almost unnerving, quality which was achieved on the one hand by rapid dynamic changes, and on the other by strained solo violin and soprano passages punctuated by loud orchestral tutti.

The third and perhaps most moving of the sections, based on Shelley’s To-, was a still movement which slowly and gently interweaved the soprano with orchestral lines. This built very effectively into the final and more animated, If Hands Could Free Your Heart, based on the Philip Larkin poem of the same title. The soprano often struggled to emerge above the orchestral texture, making the text very hard – and at some points impossible – to understand. However, this only marginally impacted an otherwise strong work.

The second half opened with Three Welsh Songs from 2008 – 09: a beautifully crafted, if occasionally slightly obvious and pastiche, work in three movements for chamber orchestra (the composer himself describes it as ‘something of a guilty pleasure’). The second movement, where we hear the tune, Lisa Lan played on the viola, featured particularly graceful lines. There were clear nods to romanticism and Britten throughout – particularly in the cheeky final movement, based on The Little Cuckoo.

What followed proved a further highlight in Partita: a 2006 solo violin piece consisting of five movements, performed with great poise and stamina by BBC NOW’s leader, Leslie Hatfield. The strength of this lengthy work stems from its intense focus, which in turn relies on an equally intense focus from the performer in keeping the audience’s attention – something that was wonderfully achieved here. Built around recurring melodic ideas, the piece had a deeply meditative quality which increased as it went on.

The concert closed with the Double Concerto for Viola and Cello from 2004, featuring Philip Dukes in his second solo performance of the evening, alongside cellist, Josephine Knight. In many ways this was noticeably the earliest piece of those featured in this Watkins portrait. There were similarities to Anthem: a frequent use of contrasts – rapid changes between melodic lines, long drawn out chords and rapid-fire runs – created a strong sense of restless agitation in the first movement, with the soloists playing mainly in unison or homophonically. The second movement opened with a striking, almost crystalline orchestral texture, underpinned by long, drawn out notes. A sense of restlessness was maintained here by further frequent dynamic and thematic changes. This continued into the third movement, which was the busiest and most agitated of the three, with the viola and cello vying for attention above the orchestral texture.

All in all, the concert gave us an excellent overview of Watkins’ work, particularly highlighting his growth as a composer. While two earliest pieces were defined by a strong sense of restless energy and an overflow of ideas (which could occasionally give a sense that they lacked focus), the pieces from 2006 and after showed an increased level of assurance and maturity. Perhaps one downside of interspersing chamber with larger scale orchestral works was the interruption of flow caused by sometimes lengthy shifting of instruments and players after each performance. Nonetheless, this was a very successful and well presented showcase.


*This Spring, Huw Watkins is working with BBC NOW on the Composition: Wales project, mounted annually by the orchestra to inspire and help develop composers in Wales. The project offers composers the chance to develop their skills, to work with a full orchestra and gain advice and guidance from professionals in the composition field. This year’s successful applicants are: Lewis Furber, Lenny Sayers, Jason Savory, Martin Humphries, Carol Jones, Harriet and David Roche. Open rehearsals will take place on April 27-28 in BBC Hoddinott Hall. Highlights from the Composition: Wales project will be performed by BBC NOW in a concert on the evening of 28 April 2016 at the same venue.