Brother act closes Chamber Music Society season in style
An air of familiarity enveloped the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as it presented its final concert of the season. The cozy setting was partially thanks to the intimate nature of the Kaplan Penthouse, but more likely due to the reunion between brothers Paul and Huw Watkins, performing the U.S. premiere of Huw’s piece for cello and piano, Blue Shadows Fall.
CMS co-commissioned the 10-minute single-movement work with London’s Wigmore Hall, where the brothers presented the premiere in February 2013. Huw, who is based in Britain, played the piano and Paul, who has since become the newest member of the Emerson String Quartet, the cello.
Blue Shadows Fall takes its title from a line in Huw Watkins’s 2012 opera In the Locked Room, and the composer’s ease in writing for the voice surfaces in the lyrical cello line composed expressly for Paul. The piece began with the cello oscillating between two notes, while high-pitched chords struck the piano. The clamor gave way to a slippery melody, sensitively played by Paul, which elided resolution with the piano accompaniment until the last note. Whether due to physical similarities or hours of practice, Paul and Huw Watkins exhibited impressive awareness of each other, especially as they transitioned into a tempestuous middle passage, and their return to the melancholy initial theme.
Violists Richard O’Neill and Yura Lee, another well-matched pair, opened the concert with George Benjamin’s virtuosic Viola, Viola. As they prepared to play the piece, the two stood on stage and faced each other as mirror images. Each violists set his or her music on three adjoining music stands—Lee read hers left to right, while O’Neill went right to left.
Keeping an eye on their music and another on their partner, the pair explored the ever-shifting textures that Benjamin teases out over 10 minutes. At times the music called for the two to pluck pizzicatos in unison, at other times they diverged into distinct parts, but most often the lines wove together in tight harmonies with such complex patterns that it’s difficult to differentiate one from the other. Lee and O’Neill fed off each other’s energy as they navigated the notoriously tricky score, violently snapping and sawing at their strings.
In between these two pieces, Lee traded her viola for a violin and joined the Watkins brothers for Three Whistler Miniatures for Piano, Violin and Cello by Helen Grime. A young English composer, Grime is also Huw Watkins’s wife. With each movement based on a miniature in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the piece opened with Lee and Paul Watkins playing nervous tremolos, hovering over tinkling piano keys. The violin and cello traded the melody back and forth in the lively second movement, and the final movement ended with a peaceful sighing in the strings.
Lee and Huw Watkins joined again after intermission for a choppy but introspective rendition of Oliver Knussen’s Autumnal, a spare composition written in 1976-77 and the earliest offering on the concert program.
After the series of cerebral works by living British composers, the three string players turned to the deceased iconoclast Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke, for the finale. Schnittke’s Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, written in 1985, is an astounding work that jumps from Schubertian melodies to sharp 12-tone accents and from pulsating Glassian themes to plush Mahlerian gestures. Watkins, Lee, and O’Neill shared a palpable affinity on stage exceedingly attentive to each other as they steered through extreme fluctuations in dynamics and style.