Conductor: Garry Walker
Soloists: Richard Watkins (horn), Nicholas Watts (tenor)
The final concert of the 2021-2022 Huddersfield Town Hall season offered a chance to focus on the changes in British music in the last 120-plus years. Beginning with Mark-Antony Turnage’s Drowned Out, a response to William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin by a major contemporary composer, we moved on before the interval to the 1940s and Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor and Horn. Undoubtedly the great English composer before Britten was Edward Elgar and his Enigma Variations from 1899 concluded the evening, but not before Alexander Ling’s Minute Masterpiece, a young composer providing a cinematic climax, almost as though Turnage had not existed.
It was good that conductor Garry Walker took us through Drowned Out –otherwise confusion would surely have set in! The first impression was the hugeness of the orchestra: triple woodwind, five trumpets, two saxophones, six percussion…. And then the frequency with which he reverted to tutti passages. Turnage’s piece is probably the most challenging to surface this year, with its elaborate undercurrent of existing themes, its manic jazz-influenced episodes that had Walker dancing on the podium and its vivid depiction of water and drowning. As the final clarinet theme weaved its way through the closing stages, it was easy to share the impression of aloneness.
The contrast with Britten’s Serenade could not have been greater, the orchestra pared down to strings which played beautifully, but unobtrusively, in support of Richard Watkins and Nicholas Watts. There are eight movements to the piece, the first delivered in magnificent style by Watkins, his smooth, pure-toned playing setting the mood for the rest of the piece. Watts similarly sculpted the lines elegantly, notably in the Tennyson setting, Blow, bugles, blow, and gained a haunted, possessed tone in the Lyke Wake Dirge. Watkins’ horn sounding from behind the stage completed a fine performance.
What can one say about the Enigma Variations? Walker favoured a slow, lingering approach to the more reclusive variations, countered by the contrasted brass-and-percussion-heavy passages where he gave his forces their head. It’s interesting to think how seldom we hear these variations in the concert hall and a major impression was how much attention all the individual sections of the orchestra get. Standing out in the all-round excellence were the bassoons and clarinets. Nimrod began in muted tones, but gradually worked its way to a dramatic conclusion, as did the Finale, in its excitingly taut expression of – could it be? – the mysterious theme behind it all.
Reviewed on April 7th 2022