Huw Watkins's opera In a Locked Room starts at the Linbury at the Royal Opera House this week. (Read about the Edinbugh premiere here). Huw Watkins is a famous pianist, but as composer he's best known to those who've heard live performances and read his scores. He's a significant composer, so this new recording, on NMC, will establish his reputation in wider circles.
Watkins's Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments dates from 1999, and was previously only available on CD in piano/cello transcription. In this version (recorded 10/2010) Paul Watkins's cello is supplemented by the Nash Ensemble, conducted by Ian Brown. The woodwind parts are alluring, mediating between cello and piano. Watkins's gift for clarity comes over well in Partita for solo violin (2006). Despite the allusion to Bach, it's not baroque. As Bayan Northcott says in his notes "no double dotted rhythms, no courante, sarabande or gavotte". Alina Ibragimova, the dedicatee, negotiates its tricky turns gracefully, so the wayward molto allegro sounds vivid, even humorous.
Four Spencer Pieces (2001) for solo piano, played by the composer himself . Each of these miniature tone poems was inspired by a specific painting, like "Shipbuilding on the Clyde" and "The Resurrection of Soldiers". Stanley Spencer's paintings show ordinary events but lit by preternatural light, every detail crystal clear. The "pictures" are framed by a Prelude and a ravishingly beautiful Postlude in which cascading cadences suggest light, clarity, contemplation. Watkins isn't "illustrating" the pictures so much as expressing the earthy surrealism of Spencer's work, so the rapture of the Postlude is extraordinarly perceptive. This exqusite miniature is the highlight ofthe whole recording.
Like so many British composers before him, Watkins turns to W H Auden. Three Auden Songs (2009) are settings of Brussels in Winter, At last the secret is out, and Eyes look into the well. Thorny text lines twist. The mood is menace. "Still waters run deep, my dear, there's never smoke without fire"...."There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this". An understated refrain but naggingly persistent.
Dylan Thomas's craft was poetry, but Watkins's setting of In my Craft or Sullen Art (2007) suggests that poetry, like alchemy, has the power to transmute base material into magic, "exercised in the still night when only the moon rages". A strange unworldly cello entices us in, and the first voice setting is relatively straightforward. A second, longer section for the Elias Quartet, singing together with their strings. Perhaps this is an interlude, but it feels central to the piece, sparking off a completely different setting of the same poem. This time the mood is agitated, insistent. The words "In my Craft or sullen art" are projected like a cry. Mark Padmore adapts his usual smooth urbanity so it captures the surreal nature of the piece. At times he sounds uncannily like Ian Bostridge. This isn't a work for voice and string quartet so much as a work for string quartet with additional voice. In the final strophe of the second setting of text, the strings subsume the human voice, and take over where it leaves off. That's Huw Watkins's "Craft": singular and very original.
I've been reading the libretto to In the Locked Room and will be writing more on Huw Watkins's new opera soon.