Paul Watkins: Interview

Cellist Paul Watkins joined me for an interview following his quite brilliant new recording of the Cello Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to discuss the piece and his feelings about it, and about Moeran more generally.

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Paul Watkins' full biography - click here

Paul WatkinsAR: what did you make of the Cello Concerto yourself?

PW: Well, I had a very strange experience with it in fact, beacuse it was not a piece that was nkown to me before I was asked to do it by the BBC Philharmonic, but when I got the music, just through looking at it (and I can hear things fairly well in my head when I look at scores, but the complete picture doesn't arrive until you get the first chance to play it through with the piano), I was amazingly struck by how similar it looked to great cello concertos of the past, particularly the Elgar, and in the last movment of it, the structure reminded me a lot of the Dvorak - the various figurations and things in there, just visually, on the page. In fact, when I started to work on it and play it through, it really turned into its own piece, and it is in fact a very original work indeed - not in any way the rip off that I thought it might turn out to be before getting to know it in depth.

So your opinion of it changed the more you got to know it?

Absolutely! Just thinking back on what I've just said, I had actually played through at the piano with a student of mine the slow movement, because she'd heard it in Raphael Wallfisch's recording, and was absolutely taken with it. But we hadn't had time to work up the outer two movements of it which are technically the more demanding ones, but I remember we just simply played through that - that wonderful B flat major section - and that's stuck in my head as being quintissentially English music. Of course he was English living in Ireland, wasn't he? So, little Celtic perfumes in there as well!

You mention that particular recording, I went back to the Gramophone review of that recording, which describes it as "a dark, sombre work...a prevailing feeling of sadness and elusive piece". None of these are descriptions which seem to match your recording of it. How would you characterise it yourself?

That's interesting actually - I didn't know about that review. I would say that on the whole it's more sort of melancholic-sentimental. Being Welsh myself I've got a slight appreciation for that kind of Celtic sentimentality, which is not necessarily bleak, in the way that say Russian sentimentality might be, but is more nostalgic and regretful. Actually the piece, as far as I'm concerned, ends quite positively. The first movement is dark, certainly, but it's serious as well - it's serious in its working out, it's musically serious. I don't think of it as being a dismal piece.

But you do seem to have managed to find a warmth even in the darker sections, which has perhaps been missed by other players...

Well thank you! I think that as well as being indicative of what's in the piece, that fact that it's such a good piece that it can take very different interpretations, I think it's also, a little bit, an indication of the sort of player that I am. The more I make recordings and listen to what I do, the more I realise that certain aspects of my playing always tend to look on the more positive and perhaps loving side of the music, rather than complete blackness.

Why do you think the concerto has been so neglected over the years? Your recording suggests it ought to be quite well up in the cello repertoire.

I hope it will become so, eventually. I don't really know. People ask that question of various pieces that I've played - why they're neglected. Earlier this year I did the Arthur Sullivan Cello Concerto at the Proms, which again is a wonderful piece. I can see why that's neglected because it has some fairly tough technical difficulties in the last movement, and is not something that I think soloists would take on lightly. The Moeran Concerto is more approachable, technically. It's by no means easy, but it's a piece that can be worked up without too much difficulty, so I can't understand it. I hope that maybe once this radio recording gets played around a little bit it will become more popular, because it's a great piece.

Cellists are known to complain that there is a shortage of great concertos for them. Does this stand anywhere within the top rank of cello concertos?

That's a difficult one - you're putting me on the spot now on the E J Moeran website! But I would say that it probably doesn't plumb the depths quite in the way the Elgar does, but then I guess it was written at a different stage in the composer's life. But, as a well crafted, communicable piece of music, I think it's absolutely up in the first rank, yes.

Those who have heard it already are suggesting that your recording of the Cello Concerto is set to become the definitive interpretation. Is it a work you'd like to play more often, perhaps in the concert hall as well ast the studio?

Well surely. If that's what people are saying then I'm very pleased about that, actually. Yes - I'm certainly going to make every effort to progamme it more and more.

Looking at your approach - some critics have rounded on the final movement as one which in its use of a folk music style is something of an easy, and perhaps a weak option for Moeran, but in your recording you took this section significantly more slowly than other performers have done. Was this a deliberate effort to avoid this so-called "Irish-jiggery"?

(Laughs) - Yes, well, we experimented with that a little bit during the rehearsals, and I remember glancing around at a few of the front desk players of the BBC Phil, and a couple of eyebrows and wry smiles were raised... Of course it's got that rumbustiousness about it, but I think there are ways of taking that seriously so it doesn't sound completely flip, and to try to get the sort of Riverdance out of it as much as possible!

I'm told that an American cellist has taken up Moeran's Cello Sonata, which is another much neglected masterpiece, if I may call it such, and is due to play it at Tanglewood next May. Is this a piece you've ever come across?

No it isn't. That's certainly something I'd be interested to look at.

Do you have much knowledge of Moeran's other works - the Symphony or chamber music, perhaps?

I certainly listened to the Violin Concerto several times before recording the Cello Concerto, and I enjoyed that very much. It's a very, very different piece, actually, a very different mood all the way through. In fact that's much more rhapsodic, isn't it? - atmospheric - it hasn't quite got the same symphonic argument in it that I think the Cello Concerto has - I think that's one of the things that really makes it a cut above. I have actually played with the Nash Ensemble, which I'm a member of, a couple of years ago now, I think it was an Oboe Quartet, which I enjoyed thoroughly, I thought it was a great piece. That's the extent of my Moeran knowledge at the moment, but I definitely want to get into it more.

Finally, do you think, therefore, that he's unfairly neglected?

Yes - I think so. I think he deserves a wider audience, especially the Cello Concerto because that's fairly close to me. Now I know the piece I'm going to do what I can to get the Moeran name out there more and more!



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"maybe once this radio recording gets played around a little bit it will become more popular, because it's a great piece"