Welshman Paul Watkins had a distinguished training on the cello with William Pleeth, Johannes Goritzki and Melissa Phelps, thus drawing on the older traditions of Klengel, Navarra, Casals, Cassadó and Tortelier – an international mélange characteristic of the latter half of the twentieth century. Success in the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition and appointment as principal cellist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the unusually young age of twenty brought Watkins to prominence. He has since paired his cello-playing with conducting and is equally well-known in this capacity, no doubt applying valuable insights from his position in the BBC Symphony. Watkins took over from David Finckel as cellist of the Emerson Quartet at the end of the 2012–2013 season, adding chamber music to his portfolio of major interests.
A penchant for twentieth-century British composition in Watkins’s discography is unsurprising: his brother is composer and pianist Huw Watkins. Traits of emotional and intellectual intensity show in his choice of repertory and in his manner of playing it; as observed with several other conductor-performers in this book, the activity of conducting tends to bring a sense of architectural design and direction to a performer’s instrumental interpretations, and Watkins’s performances reflect this.
The Britten Cello Suite No. 2 and Huw Watkins’s Cello Sonata (both 2001) indicate an aristocratic musical bearing combined with deep understanding of the music’s import. Thus in the Britten the opening movement (Declamato) has great clarity, crispness and resonance, whilst the Fuga admits a more experimental, searching hesitancy. Such perceptive musicianship is further outworked in the beautiful soundscapes of the Delius Cello Concerto (2010), performed here in its original version and not the adaptation by Herbert Withers (which remodels some passages considered unidiomatic for the cello at the time).
The rhythmically vital nature of Martinů’s Cello Sonata No. 1 (2009) is also conveyed with great aplomb, with the not-inconsiderable technical challenges managed apparently effortlessly; the finale is a particularly exciting exploration. The only non-twentieth-century work in this small selection of recordings is the Mendelssohn Op. 58 Sonata (2011). Here, from the outset, there is excitement and forward-reaching élan in which the brothers display remarkable musical sympathy supported by utterly reliable technique. Watkins, stylistically, is very much within the modern mould. He uses vibrato conventionally by the standards of his generation and there are many off-string and quite percussive bow-strokes in this Mendelssohn (which, arguably, are out of place in such repertory); the well-documented nineteenth-century employment of portamento is overlooked. These, however, are merely factual observations which do not detract from his palpable enthusiasm.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist