Colin Currie and Huw Watkins

Perth Concert Hall

The coupling of piano and percussion is a natural one, given that part of the piano’s nature which is intrinsically percussive. That’s not to say it’s all about rhythm. As percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Huw Watkins persuasively illustrated in the last of four live audience lunchtime concerts this week in Perth Concert Hall – broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 – there is as much fun to be had exploring the combined fertile potential of their respective instruments’ melodic and timbral properties.

That they chose a virtuoso contemporary programme to make their point was to be expected. Currie has long been an exciting magnet to composers, inspiring new works in a field of instrumental music that previously had precious little in the way of quality bespoke repertoire. Watkins, besides his keyboard expertise, is one of these composers who have taken up the challenge, and it was his Seven Inventions for marimba and piano that rounded off this exceptional concert.

Written for, and premiered at, the 2019 East Neuk Festival, Watkins strikes an enticing balance between the traditional and radical. In all seven pieces, which range in mood from whispered reflection to screaming ecstasy, you sense the stabilising presence of conventional techniques – tonal sequences and regular counterpoint – yet there is a quizzical, dissonant unpredictability that gives this music a mysterious allure, not least Watkins’ teasing tendency to leave the endings hanging.

This was just one magnificent performance of several. The programme opened with Dave Maric’s Predicaments, a progression from dense blues evoked through the lower piano registers and mellow marimba, to the invigorating thrill of brighter percussion that ended in a mischievous “ting”. Watkins followed that up with Helen Grimes’ Harp of the North for solo piano, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, as distantly atmospheric as Debussy and handled here with the utmost delicacy and, momentarily, the mildest disquiet.

The Scottish thread continued with Joe Duddell’s Parallel Lines, commissioned in 1999 by the BBC for Music Live in Glasgow, and inspired by Blondie’s 1970s’ album of the same name. The pop references sit beguilingly within a score that opens and closes with obstreperous energy, but whose central section – notable for its eerie crotales – is a disarming contrast.

Currie went solo in the penultimate performance, Tansy Davies’ ritualistic Dark Ground, which opens with the “dead sound” of the pedal bass drum. If that sounded like the typical start-up signal for an Irish marching flute band, the comparison ended there. Currie’s one-man act, on what looked like blinged-up drum kit, complete with thunder sheet, was a tour de force, a veritable showpiece in a recital that thrilled on every level.
Ken Walton

Available on BBC Sounds