Friday 19 March 2021

Getting to know him properly: Skylla und Charybdis, a disc devoted to the chamber music of cellist and composer Graham Waterhouse

Graham Waterhouse Skylla und Charybdis, chamber music for piano and strings; FARAO CLASSICS

Graham Waterhouse Skylla und Charybdis, chamber music for piano and strings; FARAO CLASSICS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 March 2021 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Both a composer and a cellist, Graham Waterhouse features in both roles on the disc of his complex, highly literate and dramatic music

Graham Waterhouse was a name that was new to me. Born in London but resident in Germany since 1992, Waterhouse is both a cellist and composer and he wears both hats on this new disc of his chamber music. Skylla und Charybdis, chamber music for piano and strings by Graham Waterhouse on the Farao Classics label features six works by Waterhouse for different combinations of piano and strings, with Katharina Sellheim (piano), David Fruhwirth and Namiko Fuse (violin), Konstantin Sellheim (viola), Graham Waterhouse (cello).

Waterhouse studied composition at Cambridge with Hugh Wood and Robin Holloway, and cello at the Folkwang Hochschule, Essen and with Siegfried Palm. As a performer he has played with Ensemble Modern under Pierre Boulez, MusikFabrik NRW, Philharmonia Orchestra London and Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra under Sergiu Celibidache, and since 2002 he has organized regular chamber concerts at the Gasteig in Munich. In 2011 his string quartet Chinese Whispers was awarded the BCMS Composition Prize of the Birmingham Chamber Music Society.

The disc begins with Rhapsodie Macabre, a five-movement work from 2012 for piano and string quartet which Waterhouse refers to as a dialogue piano concerto rather than a piano quintet. The work plunges straight in with plenty of vivid drama. The instrumental writing is quite traditional in feel, yet with some wonderfully scrunchy harmonies whilst the slower movements evoke the more Romantic side of the early Second Viennese School. Rather strikingly, the Dies Irae comes into it too, and fragments of this weave their way through a number of movements. It ends vividly, with a strong sense that there is an underlying narrative.

Bei Nacht is a single-movement work from 2000 for violin, cello and piano inspired by Kandinsky's painting Nacht. It starts dark and low in the piano, which is joined by crepuscular strings. There is a sense of rising, of volume, pitch and intensity, leading to lively drama but suddenly the opening atmosphere returns. Trilogy for piano quintet from 2013 is a somewhat curious piece. Transparent instrumental writing suddenly has The Marseillaise woven in, followed by other National Anthems, all referred to in a non-martial way. The result is clever, but strange. 

Bells of Beyond for piano trio is a large-scale single-movement work from 2013. It is dedicated to the memory of the Welsh composer, pianist and teacher Dafydd Llywelyn (1939–2013), who lived in Munich from 1971 till his death. Waterhouse and Llywelyn shared a love of bells and Waterhouse intends the piece to be suffused with bell sounds. Big admission, when listening to this blind I did not manage to pick up the bell influences at all. But the opening is wonderfully evocative and crepuscular, building gradually to a big Romantic drama. What is interesting about Waterhouse's writing is that he often uses quite conventional gestures, but does so in an unconventional way so that his music has a very distinct atmosphere. 

Kolomyjka for piano quartet is based on a Polish-Ukranian dance and originally written when Waterhouse was at school. It is an engagingly perky folk dance.

The final work on the disc Skylla und Charybdis for piano quartet was written in 2014. In four movements, the work is inspired by the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. But it is not descriptive, the composer says that the movements "do not refer specifically to the protagonists or to events connected with the famous legend, but rather play on the abstract images conjured up in the composer‘s mind during the writing." The result is striking and dramatic, another work with a strong feeling of narrative and character. After listening to the other works on the disc, Waterhouse's style is very recognisable and the result is a highly effective piano quartet which has nods both to classical tradition and to modernism.

Waterhouse says of this final work, "Choosing between Scylla and Charybdis is a metaphor which means »opting for the lesser of two evils«. The composer of today steers a similarly precarious path, facing questions such as: embracing or renouncing tradition; use of tonal centres or atonality; adhering to pre-conceived musical forms or use of narrative forms; allowing one instrument to dominate, or integrating them. In my mind the vision of the perilous and deadly Scylla and Charybdis mirrors these and other dilemmas facing composers, where possible danger may lie in store for those siding too closely with one extreme or the other." 

And his music does indeed balance itself between tradition and modernism, encompassing a variety of influences. Some of the music seems to push the performers to their limits; this music might be tonal but it is not simple or simplistic. 

Katharina and Konstantin Sellheim are sister and brother, and often play as a duo, and clearly having the composer playing the cello helps. The result is the feel that the performers have lived with this music for sometime, the results are confident and engaging. Katharina Sellheim clearly relishes the showier moments of piano writing (Waterhouse cites Liszt as an influence in the first work on the disc), yet there is a strong feeling of ensemble. Waterhouse's work has popped up occasionally, but this disc is a chance to really get to know him properly

Graham Waterhouse (born 1962) - Rhapsodie Macabre
Graham Waterhouse -  Bei Nacht, Op. 50
Graham Waterhouse - Trilogy
Graham Waterhouse - Bells of Beyond
Graham Waterhouse - Kolomyjka
Graham Waterhouse - Skylla und Charybdis
Katharina Sellheim (piano)
David Fruhwirth and Namiko Fuse (violin)
Konstantin Sellheim (viola)
Graham Waterhouse (cello)
Recorded Kupferhaus Pfaneg, Sept/Oct 2019

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