sound festival 2020 (part 2) review: Horn Recital by Richard Watkins

This Festival’s chosen ‘endangered’ instrument is the French Horn. Is it really endangered? I don’t know. However it was great to have it claim the performance spotlight with such a fine musician. This concert by one of the current great virtuosi of the horn, Richard Watkins, took us on a marvellous exploratory journey through some of the greatest as well as some of the less well-known works for solo horn. Watkins chose pieces that would display so many of the extraordinary sound possibilities of his instrument. Mahler spoke about contrasting the instrument’s most noble tones with its most almost evil or corrupt sounding stopped tones. Watkins demonstrated a far wider range than that in his performance today.

I studied French at school and University and when I hear the noble tones of the horn I am reminded of a poem by Alfred de Vigny, ‘J’aime le son du Cor, le soir, au fond des bois’.

I recalled those words especially listening to the music with which Watkins both opened and closed his recital, The Prologue, and at the end the Epilogue from Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. These two sections are of course for solo horn and they create a wonderful wide spaced romantic aura.

Watkins followed that with three works by less well-known composers. The first was by the Norwegian composer Johan Kvandal (1919-1999). Salmetone (Hymn tune) also exploited the dreamy tone of the horn and as Watkins said, it could also be said to be painting a Nordic landscape in sound.

Ian Wilson was born in Belfast in 1964. His piece was inspired by a Portuguese poem. She passes...passes...passes by, was a more exploratory piece using a wide palette of modern advanced techniques from clear to edgy and even grating and sometimes just blowing into the instrument. I was reminded of similar techniques used for the flute by Salvatore Sciarrino which we have heard at the soundfestival in the past.

The short movements, Four Capriccios, by the English composer and conductor George Vass were more straightforward – tuneful, attractive and rhythmically interesting.

There followed two of the finest and most celebrated pieces for solo horn. I had been looking forward to these and I was not disappointed. Watkins gave a fine introduction to Appel Interstellaire  by Olivier Messiaen, the sixth part of a longer piece Des canyons aux étoiles. It is wonderfully descriptive but unsurprisingly for Messiaen also has religious connotations expressed in words added to the score.

It was interesting to compare the modern techniques used by Wilson and by Messiaen. I felt that Messiaen uses them like a painter searching for new colours and shadings and not just for their own sake. This was a fine performance by Watkins from clear ringing tones to muffled far off sounds. He got right to the heart of Messiaen’s vision.

Sea Eagle by Peter Maxwell Davies was composed specially for Richard Watkins. Davies himself described it as fiendishly difficult. It is an amazingly acrobatic piece sometimes with runs of notes crushed into a single beat. It, like the Messiaen, was also a marvellously expressive and colourful piece.

Watkins completed his recital with the Epilogue from Britten’s Serenade played sort of offstage. It was fantastic! 

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