Review: Alexei Watkins and Alex Woolf, Buxton

This was an interesting programme to end my Buxton International Festival listening for the year. Another member of the audience said to me just before it began, “I am really looking forward to this – the sound of the horn against that of the piano.” At the end he turned and said, “That was excellent. Buxton needs more of this. Two splendid young musicians playing something a bit different. A real shot in the arm.” I can only agree.

French horn player Alexei Watkins observed, when introducing a piece composed for him by pianist Alex Woolf, that in an imagined library of music the amount written especially for horn would occupy a tiny shelf compared to the rows and rows for violin, for example.

Alexei and Alex began with a piece that is a cornerstone in horn repertoire. Beethoven’s Horn Sonata in F major (Op 17) is a relatively youthful piece and it is often claimed that Beethoven sketched it out very hurriedly to meet a deadline. If so that might account for the freshness of the music. It is not a complex piece but it has a directness and immediacy that is engaging from the outset. The premiere was given by Giovanni Punto and Beethoven himself playing piano; both were virtuosos and the music is often characterised by cheerful displays and flourishes.

Alexei then played Olivier Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire. This solo piece is a series of fragments of sound – with extended dramatic pauses and tricky technical devices. To give Alexei a rest after the demands of Messiaen’s imagination Alex played a short piano solo – Land of Nod, a lullaby that he had composed, in which the ticking of a bedroom clock is heard throughout.

The pair were reunited for Franz Strauss Nocturno (Op 7) a simple, but beautiful piece which Alexei observed was always great pleasure to play. Alexei had asked Alex (born in 1995, not 1963 as given in the  Festival programme) to write a piece for him. Alex has an impressive list of compositions to his name already and Aria is an intriguing piece in which the horn player appears to use the piano cabinet to create an echo to play against.

The programme concluded with Gilbert Vinter’s jolly and fun Hunter’s Moon which the story in music of a hunter whose exploits comes to a sudden and unexpected end following a dreamy interval at a pub.

As my neighbour commented: Excellent.

Keith Savage