sound festival 2020 review: Ben Goldscheider and Huw Watkins


Friday 23rd October 8pm

For the last few years, the soundfestival has highlighted performances by what they term ‘endangered’ instruments. So far recently we have had oboe, bassoon and viola. This year, the featured instrument is French Horn. Each year the Festival invites celebrated exponents to showcase programmes of contemporary music for their instrument. Today’s performer Ben Goldscheider was in 2016 winner of the Brass Category Final in the BBC Young Musician of the Year. He is now a recognised top international soloist. He was accompanied on piano by Huw Watkins who is also one of the composers whose music was performed in today’s concert. 

The programme opened with a piece by another German composer Jörg Widmann listed as ‘composer, conductor and clarinettist. He is also said to be ‘in 2018, the third most performed contemporary composer’. His piece was entitled simply Air for solo horn. The melodic writing spanned a wide range made ever more expressive by Ben’s variations in dynamics. There were also changes of timbre from the most glowingly noble sound to the edgy sound produced by hand stopping. In this performance though, Ben was able to produce a wide range of horn timbres including high notes that were almost little squeaks. This was not all though, by singing and playing at the same time Ben was able to produce chords and apparently the piano sustain pedal had been held down by a pair of scissors so that the strings of the piano would resonate with many of the louder horn calls. So there was a kind of piano accompaniment but without a pianist. This was an amazing technicolor thriller of a piece.

The work by Volker David Kirchner was in three movements and entitled Tre Poemi. Huw Watkins had to pluck some piano strings to give the impression of a guitar and he had to create deep rumbling sounds as well. The horn was sounding at its most noble but muting was used to give distant echo effects. The second movement opened with fanfare-like passages on horn mirrored by the piano. This movement was lively like a scherzo for both horn and piano. The final movement was dreamy and impressionistic to begin with then at the conclusion there were long held pianissimo notes on the horn so well controlled by Ben.

Huw Watkin’s Lament was lovingly played by both piano and horn. There was a sadness to the work but the singing tones of the horn made me forget that. It was a deliciously romantic piece, so contemporary composers still have that idea at their fingertips.

Roxanna Panufnik is the daughter of the Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik. She was born in London and is therefore considered to be a British composer. Her Sonnets without words was also in three movements, all of them slowish and dreamily romantic for both horn and piano. In fact it was the romantic sounding piano part that put the stamp on the music. The horn sang out almost like a voice especially in the middle movement.

The final composer in the programme, Richard Bissill is himself a horn player as well as a composer. His piece stood out from the others because Song of a New World was decidedly jazzy or should I say bluesy? There were also passages where the horn seemed about to dance. There were low notes which would not have worked with what I am about to say but for much of the piece this was the horn as the nearest thing to the voice of Cleo Laine. I thought it was great, indeed so was the entire concert. Ben Goldscheider throughout his whole performance showed an almost supernatural control of every aspect of his instrument. One of my best friends at the University was a horn player but nothing like Ben. However he had a very low opinion of other local horn players (don’t worry, they are all dead). We would go to their concerts so we could tell them afterwards that they had given a ‘cracking’ good performance. Get it? That could never be true of the amazingly brilliant Ben Goldscheider!     

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