First impressions matter – but they don’t always tell the whole story. Yesterday’s late morning concert at the Two Moors Festival started in decidedly uncertain fashion, but improved steadily as the concert progressed.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins
© Clive Barda

The Two Moors Festival offers a long weekend of music in each of Dartmoor and Exmoor; each day is densely packed with classical concerts, talks and music of other music genres. It’s the chance to take in a lot of music while relaxing in areas of outstandingly beautiful English countryside. Opening the Exmoor Saturday was the festival’s Artistic Director, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, accompanied on the piano by this year’s composer-in-residence Huw Watkins.

While the acoustic of All Saints Church, Dulverton, is generously rewarding for a pianist, it clearly takes some taming for a violin-piano duo because, at the beginning of the concert, Waley-Cohen and Watkins clearly had some problems in doing so. At the start of the opening work, Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor, the violin and piano sound failed to blend, Waley-Cohen’s violin sounding somewhat uncertain, somewhat too quiet from Watkins’ piano, with the two not appearing to communicate as one would have wished. To be fair, it must be difficult to make this music cohere: classic Debussy ethereal arpeggios alternate with spiky sections, outbursts of rhapsody, virtuosic violin passagework and harmonies which anticipate later music like Gershwin-era jazz or the soundtrack to Les Enfants du paradis. The coherence improved as the piece progressed, with the performers warming to the occasion and the hall for the très animé end.

The second work on the bill was a world premiere of a sort. Watkins’ Violin Sonata had received its official world premiere last November in an empty Wigmore Hall but this was its first outing in front of a live audience. The piece revealed Watkins to be an interesting composer and a fine pianist, particularly impressive in conjuring a steady flow out of rippling piano notes. There’s more than a touch of the natural world in his writing, which can evoke running water or gentle sunlight or turn fiery and violent. This is very much classical music, but it has things in common with new age music from other genres. I most enjoyed passages of tenuto violin over thickly textured piano at the end of the first movement and the ethereal, high violin sound at the start of the second. The evanescent ending was very rewarding.

The final piece, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major, was the strongest performance. By now, violin and piano had achieved the right balance. The two performers have very different stage personalities: Waley-Cohen focused but relaxed, almost serene; Watkins glaring quizzically at his score with a permanent slight frown. But for the Beethoven, their music-making fused properly into a common intent, clearly enjoying the composer’s humour, relishing the Vivace passages and summoning up the best cantabile of the recital in the slow second movement. There’s a neat piece of Beethovenian humour near the end when the piano and violin echo each other and this brought out particularly well, to create a satisfying end to the concert.

David's press trip to Exmoor was funded by The Two Moors Festival.