Unless you are an aficionado of horn music, I recommend exploring this CD a few tracks at a time. I started with the “Bonus Tracks” beginning with Henry Eccles’s (1670-1742) Sonata in G minor. London-born Eccles was a composer and violinist and was a member of the King’s Band. Feeling somewhat neglected, he moved to Paris where he joined another Royal Band. His most infamous work collection was Twelve Solos for the Violin, published in 1720. Unfortunately, this was not entirely his own endeavour. He had lifted several pieces from a certain Guiseppe Valentini. The present “Horn Sonata” was No.11 of this volume. It does seem to have been written by Eccles himself. It was transcribed for horn by the American horn virtuoso, Joseph Eger. The Sonata works well in this arrangement. The four movements are well balanced and full of interest. The slow introduction is followed by three lively dances.
David Gwilt (b.1932) is a Scottish composer who has worked much of his life in Hong Kong. The present Sonatina for horn and piano dates from 1952. It is very much a piece of its time. The opening Allegro is spiky with a wide-ranging solo part. After some brassy fanfares, the second subject is a bit more reflective. The slow movement is a lovely piece of soul-searching. The mood lightens with the lively and breath-taking rondo. David Gwilt, for some reason, is virtually unrepresented in the current CD catalogues.
The track listing announces Arthur Cooke’s Rondo in B flat. And herein lies a wee drop off. This vibrant piece, dating from 1950, is by Arnold Cooke (1906-2005). It became “an appealing encore piece for instrumentalists”. The present horn soloist, Ifor James, is quoted as saying that “the work captures the qualities of the instrument superbly.” It is a pleasure to hear this “jaunty” hunt inspired piece of neo-classicism. Interestingly, there was a rather shadowy composer, singer, pianist and conductor called Arthur Cooke. He was born in 1879 and died at a time unknown.
The last of the Bonus Tracks is one of relatively few compositions by Alan Abbott. Much of his career was spent as a music producer and music director, with the BBC, the Turkish State Ballet, the Australian Ballet and more. The Alla Caccia is an engaging little number that hides an unforgettable tune amongst the hunting fanfares inherent in its title. The slow middle section is deliciously romantic and moody.
Turning now to the main events on this CD. Peter Racine Fricker wrote his Horn Sonata, op.24 for the legendary Dennis Brain. It was premiered by the dedicatee and the pianist, Harry Isaacs at the Conway Hall on 20 March 1955. It is typical of the composer at this period. The progress of the music is tightly controlled, and often austere. The opening movement is written in sonata form and has a concise development section. There is a balance here between intensity and expressiveness. The second movement Scherzo is quicksilver, with some remarkable double and triple tonguing. Strangely, the heart of the work is the slow finale. This is a rondo, but certainly not a rollocking one. It is a successful Sonata, with Fricker brilliantly mastering the difficult art of combining the horn and piano.
Carl Nielsen wrote his short Canto Serioso in 1913. I understand that it was originally an audition piece for aspirants to the Copenhagen Opera Orchestra. The band needed a “low horn player” hence the extensive use of the lower register in this piece. It is a moody, romantically charged miniature.
The main event on this CD are the two Horn Sonatas by the German Paul Hindemith. I admit to not being a huge fan, and I guess I rarely choose to listen to his music. Nevertheless, when I do hear something by him, I invariably enjoy it. The Sonata No.1 in F major was completed during November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was only a few weeks later that Hindemith left Switzerland bound for America, and a teaching career at Yale University. The opening movement deploys widely contrasting themes of a stately and lyrical nature. This is underpinned by some aggressive rhythms. There is a sense of militaristic bombast here. The second movement opens with a long solo passage for the piano, before the horn introduces a second theme. It typically presents a mood of calm and melancholy. However, this is brusquely kicked into touch by the flamboyant finale, which opens with “bustling energy”, soon to be followed by a quiet interlude. The remainder of this movement is characterised by “heroic” and colourful “show-off” music. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this piece. It is clearly a work of its time, balancing menacing thoughts and lyrical reflection at a time of great danger for civilisation.
The other work by Hindemith is the Althorn Sonata in E flat major. This was composed in 1943 whilst he was on holiday in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. There was a problem. Hindemith’s publisher refused to issue the work, as they felt it was written for an antique instrument, only played in musical fanfares and by amateurs. Later, Schotts did publish the Sonata, on condition that it could be played on the contemporary French horn. There are some novelties in this piece, including a spoken dialogue heard before the final movement, a mysterious Morse Code message in the second and possible references to numerology. The formal construct of the work is a Sonata da chiesa – four movements, a slow introduction, a fugal allegro, a slow cantabile and a rapid finale.
The poem may reflect the composer’s thoughts about his German childhood, when the mail was delivered by horse and carriage, and the postman still blew his post horn to announce his arrival. In Germany today, the symbol of the Post Office (Deutsche Post) is the Althorn. I enjoyed this enigmatic Sonata. It is well played here, full of interest and with a hint of mystery to add a touch of spice.
Little need be said about the performances here. They are ideal. Details of the horn player Ifor James and the composer/pianist John McCabe can easily be found on the Internet. The liner notes, by Robert Mathew Walker are excellent and provide a readable introduction to the music. It is interesting that he does not mention the esoteric mysteries of the Althorn Sonata. As noted above, the track listing refers to Arthur, rather than Arnold Cooke, an easy mistake to make. The insert is printed on flimsy computer paper, which does detract from the overall packaging of this CD. Eagle eyed readers will have noticed that there are no recording dates or venues included in the track listings above. They are not given in the CD documentation. I asked the record company about this. Seemingly, the apparatus is a “bit sketchy”. It is known that the Hindemith Sonata in F, the Fricker, the Nielsen and the Abbott were recorded sometime during January 1968. Hindemith’s Althorn Sonata was never released. Finally, the Eccles, Gwilt and Cooke were released in 1979 on the Cornucopia record label, which was privately owned by Ifor James.
Heritage Records are to be congratulated on exhuming these excellent recordings from the archives. The re-mastering by Paul Arden-Taylor is superb throughout.Track Listing:
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sonata No.1 in F major (1939)
Althorn Sonata in E flat major (1943)
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-90)
Horn Sonata, op.24 (1955)
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Canto Serioso (1913?)
Henry ECCLES (1670-1742) (arr. Joseph EGER (1920-2013)
Sonata in G minor (c.1720)
David GWILT (b.1932)
Horn Sonatina (1952)
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Rondo in B flat (1950)
Alan ABBOTT (b.1926)
Alla Caccia (1948) [2:40]
Ifor James (horn), John McCabe (piano)
Rec. Not given (See Below)
HERITAGE HTGCD 164
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.