Halle premieres Huw Watkins’ Symphony No. 2

This was the first time (or was it the second?) I’ve heard The Hallé on their home turf in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. It is a phenomenal band. The strings are powerful, responsive and dynamic. The woodwind ensemble is not like anything I have heard in the UK in recent years. Crystal clear articulation, a beautiful melding of timbres throughout, and the sweetest, clearest, most delectable of flute sounds crowning the lot.

Bridgewater throughout does have a 90s cruise liner feel about it, but the auditorium acoustic is generous, constructing a cavernous sound that is both distant and intimate at the same time. I hear richness in the ensemble and detail in the individual instrumentation. The basses and cellos are cushioned making any plucked note en masse feel like a pebble falling into deep water. The rest of the strings, supported by wooden surfaces all around them, create an impressive range of colours and textures, deftly targetting their energies in short collective bursts whenever the need arises.

When The Hallé plays the Huw Watkins Symphony No. 2 the orchestra is almost double in size. Lots of lower brass, percussion, harp and extra strings. These extra forces are carefully outlined by the composer. At twenty minutes, It is a compact work packed full of ravishing textures and various other aural tricks demonstrating why Huw Watkins is such a sought-after composer. Watkins’ calling card is simple: he writes new music you want to listen to; he knows what the audience wants even if it does not.

In the opening sequence of the first movement, two flutes play together but ever so slightly out of phase creating an unsettling echo effect with an eery edge that plays to the Hall’s acoustic. As a new dawn dawns at the beginning of the second movement, consoling strings are juxtaposed with expectant woodwind chords. A beautiful dance-like pattern played by clarinet, oboe, and flute. This idea is later expanded to include the rest of the wind and the brass. And towards the end, one octave leap in a solo horn ramps up the anticipation for the concluding third movement.

Augustin Hadelich, Sir Mark Elder and The Hallé at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Later in the programme, the sight of the comparatively cut-down orchestra for the Brahms Violin Concerto is surprising. The strings still pack a punch with precision, robustness, and dynamism. The end of the radiant wind chorale at the beginning of the first movement was matched by dry whispering strings – entirely different textures but perfectly paired.

Soloist Augustin Hadelich is a self-assured performer, playing with a beautifully isolated movement, his body drawing different lines independent from the sound he is creating on the violin.

A question arises for me mid-performance about the extent to which this physicality is contributing to my listening experience. When I close my eyes and listen, I feel like I am missing out on sound. When I see him play – hinged from the waist, sometimes fleet of foot, sometimes reaching seemingly ‘beyond’ the instrument – I feel like I am hearing all of the sound. There is a strength that emanates from his core that plays a key role in all of this, helping him shift from moments of intense passion to exquisite delicate tenderness. The pianissimos are fragile, but the gaps in between the notes are distinct. Yet throughout, Hadelich isn’t overly demonstrative. It doesn’t feel like we’re seeing much of him in that the performance isn’t about him. In this way he has remarkable presence. As an audience member I feel safe in his hands and this in itself helps me feel more connected to what’s going on. I find all of this detail mesmerising in the moment.

Among all of this detail, one thing has gone overlooked. That of conductor Mark Elder. When he speaks as he did before the Watkins premiere, his unassuming tone is so low-key as to be humbling. It is almost as though he is saying ‘don’t look at me, look at them’. His movements are contained. Even at his most animated or demonstrative, he doesn’t distract. This is direction targeted at the players rather than the audience, a manifestion of character over personality.

Ben Goldscheider’s musical tribute to Dennis Brain

Horn player Ben Goldscheider has a remarkable CV for someone who came to prominence back in 2016 following his BBC Young Musician Concerto Final in 2016.

Solo appearances followed with the BBC Concert, BBC Symphony, Aurora, English Chamber, and and Manchester Camerata. He’s been guest principal for West Eastern Divan, English Chamber and Philharmonia. Last year he featured in a recording of Mark Simpson’s Geysir and Mozart’s Gran Partita. This year he records as soloist with Philharmonia and appears at Wigmore Hall. He’s 23.

The release of Godscheider’s musical tribute to much-loved musician Dennis Brain whose centennial the music world is marking at the moment is a homage to the legendary horn player who died at 36 in 1956 in a car crash.

Dennis Brain

Dennis Brain (1921 – 1956) came from a musical family. Grandfather and uncles played the horn; Dennis’ father taught Dennis the horn throughout his Royal Academy of Music years; brother Leonard played the oboe; mother Marion played the piano.

Brain is celebrated for the quality of his sound which even in a mono recording like Strauss’ first horn concerto with the Philharmonia from 1947 is something to marvel at – a long elegant self-assured melodic line that reassures with every caress. The opening subject of the first movement evokes a powerful image – a column of air that starts in the pit of the abdomen and weaves its way across a wide vista with grace.

That so many composers in Brain’s early career were interested in the horn player’s playing is reflected in the music written for him by the likes of Hindemith, Benjamin Britten and Gordon Jacob. “Dennis Brain has often been heralded as awakening the horn from a long slumber,” said Ben Goldscheider in the release for the album, “such was the comparative barrenness of the Romantic period in terms of compositions for a solo horn player.”

Composer Huw Watkins plays piano on Ben Goldscheider’s Legacy tribute to Dennis Brain

The album ‘Legacy’ consists of music for Brain (it surprised me that Poulenc wrote for Brain), and that written in memory of him, the most arresting of which on a first listen for me at least is Huw Watkins Lament.

Lament is a ravishing creation, taut and efficient, charting a journey through a range of emotional statements punctuated with anguished leaps. Music with humanity that has the power to console. It’s rare that new music I’m invited to write about prompts so many listens as this has this week. It’s music that makes me want to explore Huw Watkins other output further. Some achievement.

Ben Goldscheider

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s Sonnets without Words during Ben’s Facebook premiere launching the album on Friday night, the sound of her rich array of harmonies made me think of her Love Abide album on Signum featuring Voces 8 (a release that triggered a revealing interview with Roxanna for the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast back in 2019).

“Panufnik speaks when she’s writing for the human voice,” I said to The OH (it sounded less pretentious than it reads) as we watched Goldscheider play Sonnets.

Reading the booklet now at the time of writing this post I now understand that Sonnets started as a work for voice and piano.

That her transcription for horn and piano makes me think that when listening to Goldscheider’s recording helps me appreciate more what Roxanna’s compositional language is. Sweet Love Remember’d has an absorbing theatrical air about it.

James Gilchrist in conversation with Huw Watkins during recordings at Henry Wood Hall

The other striking thing about this album is Goldscheider’s playing. In Watkin’s Lament and Mine Eye from Roxanna Panufnik, there’s a fragility to the vibrato that creates jeopardy to the listening experience. The sincerity in the voice creates a persona that mixes self-assurance and vulnerability. Utterly fascinating.

In posting this I want to call out the video production and PR for Ben’s album release. If you’re looking to encourage people to listen, think, reflect, and advocate the material then sharing a range of supporting material off the bat is bottom line stuff. Artists looking to maximise reach must understand why it’s important to engage with video, image, and copy production. Without that supporting material advocating new work is made more challenging. Goldscheider’s team has done textbook work.