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CD Review

John Hawkins

Voices from the Sea

  • Voices from the Sea
  • Variations for piano
  • Waiting: Tango for viola and double bass 1
  • Brief Encounters for flute and viola 1
  • Worlds Apart for double bass and piano
  • Shadows for viola, double bass, and piano 2
  • Disturbed Nights for oboe
  • Gestures for two violas 1,2
  • Quietus for string trio 1
Martyn Hill, tenor
Kathron Sturrock, piano
Nancy Ruffer, flute
Christopher O'Neal, oboe
Siân Philipps, violin
1 Paul Silverthorne, viola
2 Yuko Inouë, viola
Gemma Rosefield, cello
1,2 Duncan McTier, double bass
Divertimenti String Orchestra/Antony Pay
Meridian CDE84496 70:34
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A taste of something wonderful.

Looking over my buying habits, I seem to seek out especially American and British composers. Nevertheless, I hadn't heard even of John Hawkins, let alone his music, before this disc. Indeed, this is the first CD devoted to Hawkins. He studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and Malcolm Williamson, among others, and I gather was particularly close to Lutyens - a composer rather neglected right now, as she was to some extent during her life. However, his idiom reminds me most strongly of Britten, without the curse of imitation. Both composers write lean and have the knack of the telling, incisive phrase.

A composer's music lives in many ways. We know best the prestigious commission from large organizations or superstar performers. Sometimes the public, as opposed to critics or performers, rescues a composer from oblivion - as with Orff or Bernstein, for example. Sometimes a critic ignites interest, as Simpson did for Nielsen. Other times, performers, amateur and professional, keep a body of work alive - all those brass and wind sonatas by Hindemith, for example, or Randall Thompson's choral music. As you can easily tell by looking over the roster here, Hawkins has had help from good performers who enjoy playing his music. In many cases, they have asked him for work. Indeed, this sort of attention - essentially by interested, informed listeners who also have the ability to realize and proselytize the music - must make the composer grateful, in lieu of cash.

To learn that most or even all these performances come from the composer's personal recordings wouldn't surprise me. It's the lot of most new-music recordings, even one so accessible and winning as this. Inevitably, due to production costs and (often) royalty payments, the program consists mostly of chamber music. I'd call some of it light work, without attaching a value to the music. In this case, I describe simply the type of music. The tendency to undervalue this genre comes, I believe, from the nineteenth-century Romantics, who tended to make art into religion and who had a rather narrow notion of religion. Religion moved you only on an exalted level. Unfortunately, most of us don't live at an exalted level all the time. To me, one test of a body of artistic work - and, for that matter, a religion - is that it addresses our entire lives, the lofty sublime and the trivial mundane. Bach writes both the St. Matthew Passion and the "Coffee" Cantata, Vaughan Williams the Sancta Civitas and The Running Set. With this program, Hawkins shows his range.

Waiting: Tango, for virtuosos Silverthorne and McTier on viola and double bass respectively, in its own brief way is a dramatic piece. Hawkin's terse liner note says: "A hot night: she waits, he waits. Maybe they meet?" The piece doesn't come over as programmatically as the note implies, but one can easily imagine that particular scenario as the music plays (I myself favor Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron). Like most composers of duos - Ravel, Martinů, and Honegger among them - Hawkins makes it sound as if more instruments get into the act than actually do. Yet, the piece doesn't strike you as a technical stunt. It's wonderfully expressive of a hot night and the feeling of expectancy, that someone is about to step out of the dark. It also doesn't moongaze. The musical matter is very tight.

Brief Encounters, another duo (this time for flute and viola) Hawkins wrote as a wedding present for violist Nardo Poy and his wife, flutist Sato Moughalian. These are epigrams (three movements in five-and-a-half minutes). However, one senses tension between the length of each movement and the uneasy, restless psychological depth of the work as a whole. Despite its brevity, the work satisfies, like all good miniatures.

Duncan McTier commissioned Worlds Apart (for double bass and piano) and also functioned as the composer's technical consultant. I don't know why the double bass is a repertoire orphan, at least as far as the instrument itself goes. Its prominence in jazz far outstrips its place in classical, where composers treat it as a "utility" instrument. Hawkins builds the work from two little bits, heard at the beginning: a rapid stutter and a stepwise rise to a third. Out of this minimum, he gets a nine-minute piece. One can admire the composer's ingenuity, but one must also recognize the passion in the work. Again, we find ourselves in a no-man's world of expectation and unease. This is music for Godot. McTier clears the considerable technical hurdles, with a beautiful, cello-like tone and superb intonation. He also gets the emotional architecture of the piece. One of the finest pieces for double bass I've heard.

Shadows, written for McTier, Inouë, and pianist Sturrock, has its roots in a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, in my opinion an underrated writer. The speaker recalls a dance from years ago and a former lover. After a brief introduction, the music becomes a sensuous waltz, filled with regret. Again, the work doesn't run long, but it does go deep.

I must admit that in general I don't care for pieces for solo melody instrument. I tend to wink out during their course. In Disturbed Nights for solo oboe, Hawkins provides an easy-to-follow variations structure and throws in a dramatic shape besides, but I really don't get it. It makes very little impression on me. Fortunately, it's not long. I just plain don't care for it, which means you might.

On the other hand, Gestures is a brilliant tour-de-force for two violas. Unlike Waiting, the range has contracted. Unlike Brief Encounters, Hawkins can't resort to the variety of two completely different timbres. The music itself belies the stodgy, insurance-salesman image of the viola. Hawkins invests the piece with a Bartókian vigor and drive from first note to last. My only complaint is that it's over too quickly. More movements! I want more movements!

As its name implies, Quietus, for string trio, touches on death, in this case that of Mary Silverthorne, the violist's wife. This isn't acceptance, but grief and rage. Again, Hawkins's talent for psychological drama shows itself. One can imagine this music as an "inner soundtrack" to life. It's a wonderful piece, but again I want more. I feel that the piece abandons me. More movements!

The short Variations for piano, however, conveys more emotional payoff than its length seems to promise. The highly-chromatic theme nevertheless has a clear shape, easily followed in its transformations. Furthermore, the work as a whole convinces as a large movement, with a masterful "narrative" flow. Much of what I realize about the architecture of the piece comes from Kathron Sturrock's playing. She not only conveys the shape of each variation, but its place in the whole, and there's a "natural," singing quality to her phrasing besides. She manages beautifully subtle shifts in tempo without crossing over into the soupy, and she applies a large palette of tonal color tastefully.

The major work (other than Worlds Apart and the Variations) is the song cycle for voice and orchestra Voices from the Sea, written to poems by those who make their living on ships. This shows, like no other item on the program, Hawkins's considerable range. The poems, all from professionals, don't indulge the usual clichés. One sailor wonders why he ever chose this living, viewing it as a compulsion rather than a choice. Another describes the sudden, horrible death of a mate with objective precision. The first thing that grabs me is the Hawkins melos - unpredictable and individual, yet without breaking down the traditional boundaries of song. Hawkins doesn't give us a heap of recitative, but actually finds a coherent musical structure that fits the poems. The string writing owes something, I think, to the Britten of Les Illuminations and Peter Grimes, as does the emotional, Grimesian tone. It conjures up the ocean's slate-gray menace.

This music demands not only technique but understanding, and all the performers deliver. Silverthorne and McTier play with depth. Martyn Hill has always been one fine, communicative singer. You can actually understand his words, and he declaims poetry as if he knows what it means. We hear Hill, Pay, and the Divertimenti strings in a live performance, without studio magic, and it's a very good account. Although I didn't care for his solo, I fault myself rather than oboist Christopher O'Neal, who has a beautiful sense of line. All the players have put their talent at the service of the music. I hope some genius record producer takes up Hawkins's work. This CD has whetted my appetite.

Side note: With the exception of the song cycle, the works on the CD were recorded in a single day. That tells you something of the caliber of the musicians here.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz