Thursday, 17 June 2021

Violin and piano duo are driven to discover

Violin and piano duo are driven to discover

THEY recently played the Frick Collection in New York, but this autumn the Kenton Theatre is beckoning for virtuoso violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and her duo partner — the pianist and composer Huw Watkins.

For anyone looking for top-flight classical music on their doorstep, the November 3 recital is as hot a ticket as you will find in Henley.

Prior to his death in 2012 aged 94, Waley-Cohen’s former teacher Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most exceptionally gifted young violinist I have ever encountered”.

More recently, BBC Music magazine has praised her “laser bright tone and effortless agility”, while the German newspaper Die Welt noted that “her playing is not about ego, but about insight”.

Waley-Cohen certainly gets about. The 32-year-old was born in London and still calls the capital home — somewhere she is happy to get back to when she isn’t touring the world’s premier concert halls.

“I do quite a lot in Europe and I’m also going to Japan and China and the States this year as well,” she says. “I think the furthest away is New Zealand — I mean, it’s quite a lot of travelling sometimes, but it’s great to be at home.”

Many leading musicians start relatively young, but Waley-Cohen was just two years old when she saw a Proms concert on TV. Transfixed by the violin solo — a sound she has said is “almost like a human voice” — she pestered her parents for lessons for the next year and a half until they gave in.

She went on to study at the Royal College of Music, where she developed her interest in contemporary music by living composers — among them her current duo partner, Huw Watkins.

“It was about 16 or 17 years ago now, when he had written some beautiful violin and piano pieces for a BBC competition. My teacher at the time recommended Huw and that’s how we originally met. I played his pieces and we started playing together a few years later.”

Waley-Cohen went on to premiere one of Watkins’s concertinos and the pair have also recorded together for Champs Hill and Signum Records.

“We perform together pretty regularly,” says Waley-Cohen. “And of course it goes in patches because sometimes we’re both busy doing other things or doing solo things. But we’re fairly regular duo partners throughout the season and we continue to do lots together. We’ve been playing together as a duo for at least 10 years now.”

Last year the pair toured Europe together, where they performed one of the works that they will be bringing to the Kenton Theatre in November.

“Oliver Knussen’s Reflection for Violin and Piano is a really special piece for us because he wrote it for us for our European tour last year — which was the first piece he’d written in I think about eight years.

“It was a huge honour to have had him write it for us and he’s someone that Huw had known and worked with for many years.

“I got to know him through my sister Freya, who’s a composer, and very sadly he died this summer — so we really want to bring the piece to as many audiences as we can. It’s quite virtuosic, quite sensuous, in Oli’s inimitable style — but it was very special that he wrote it for us. The premiere was in October 2016 in Birmingham and then we toured it throughout Europe as part of the ECHO tour of the European Concert Hall Organisation.”

An internationally acclaimed composer, the previous year had seen Knussen — who was 66 at the time of his death in July — awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music.

“Oliver’s music was... he didn’t write vast quantities,” reflects Waley-Cohen. “His pieces are so finely crafted — they’re the most perfect joy you can imagine.

“It’s just a really beautiful piece and we want to share it as much as we can. And we had the chance to work on it with him, of course — he was able to tell us exactly what he wanted.”

Speaking of composers, Huw Watkins is writing a new piece for Waley-Cohen — to be premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 2020. Does she often plan her concert diary so far ahead?

“A year ahead is about average. My furthest ahead date is at the end of 2020, so it can go a few years ahead! There’s a lot of forward planning, but also things can change. It’s quite reassuring, compared to actors or something. We’re still freelancers but we have more of an idea of what we’re going to be doing in a year’s time.”

Waley-Cohen’s words conjure an image of pristine icebergs floating in a clear blue sea — the public performances being what is visible above the surface, with a lot more going unseen underneath.

“Absolutely,” she laughs. “People often say ‘What do you do on days when you don’t have a concert?’ The main part of our job is the practising and the studying and the playing and, you know, then trying to get things ready so that we’re able to present them to the public and to share what we’ve discovered in the music.”

The concert will open with Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor followed by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No10 in G major and Knussen’s Reflection for Violin and Piano before the concert concludes with Prokofiev’s celebrated Violin Sonata No1 in F minor.

Sarah Miller and Julia Carey of Henley-based promoters S&J Events said: “This is our debut event and we decided to focus on a violin concerto evening to kick-start the business — as we know how many classical music enthusiasts there are here in Henley.

“We also hope to appeal to a cross-section of ages, as Tamsin, having played since the age of two, is a particularly youthful violinist for her award-winning experience, and Huw Watkins is critically acclaimed as a pianist in the classical world.

“We are very fortunate to be sponsored by Rocco Forte Hotels for this event, as well as supported by Mr Hobbs Gin — who will be offering a complimentary drink to ticket holders on the night.

“Tamsin is with Signum Records and an ECHO Rising Star, so we are particularly thrilled that she will be performing for one night in Henley at the Kenton Theatre, and we consider this to be an unmissable event for music lovers.”

Tickets for the concert on Saturday, November 3, are priced £25. Doors open at 7pm, with complimentary cocktails courtesy of Mr Hobbs Gin being served until 7.40pm, when the performance starts. For more information and to book, call (01491) 575698 or visit

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