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CLASSICAL  January 2005

CLASSICAL January 2005

Subject:

John Hawkins's Musical Voices

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 4 Jan 2005 13:38:32 -0600

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         John Hawkins
      Voices from the Sea

*  Voices from the Sea
*  Variations for piano
*  Waiting: Tango for viola and double bass *
*  Brief Encounters for flute and viola *
*  Worlds Apart for double bass and piano
*  Shadows for viola ^, double bass, and piano
*  Disturbed Nights for oboe
*  Gestures for two violas *^
*  Quietus for string trio *

Martyn Hill (tenor), Divertimenti String Orchestra/Antony Pay, Kathron
Sturrock (piano), Paul Silverthorne (viola), Duncan McTier (double bass),
Nancy Ruffer (flute), Yuko Inoue (viola), Christopher O'Neal (oboe), Sian
Philipps (violin), Gemma Rosefield (cello)
Meridian CDE84496 Total time: 70:34

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, Martinu, 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 little 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, Inoue, 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 Bartokian 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 wide 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 cliches.  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.

Steve Schwartz

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