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Musica Incognita
Sixten SYLVAN (1914-2001)
Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 7 (1963) [16:54]
Jean-Michel DAMASE (1928-2013)
Sonata for Horn and Piano (1996) [14:38]
Leslie BASSETT (1923-2016)
Sonata for Horn and Piano (1954) [11:12]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Sonata In E-Flat for Horn and Piano (1937) [15:29]
Ian Zook (horn)
Eric Ruple (piano)
rec. 2016, the Forbes Centre for the Performing Arts Concert Hall, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1676 [58:13]

Discs of horn sonatas are nothing new and there have been some very fine ones released over the years. Where this disc is different is in the choice of composers, with some unusual repertoire, including a world premiere recording, whilst the York Bowen is probably the best-known sonata presented here and it has only received a couple of previous outings on disc.

The disc opens with the Sonata for Horn and Piano Op. 7, from 1963, by Swedish composer Sixten Sylvan who was in fact a doctor and largely a self-taught composer and amateur musician. He did however have lessons in piano and organ from Gustav Paulson between 1930 and 1933, later studied trumpet at the local University of Lund, and played both the trumpet and horn in the Lund Orchestral Society orchestra. As a result of his medical duties, Sylvan composed few works that were however well received. His Sonata was premiered on Danish radio in a performance by the works dedicatee, Ingbert Michelsen, principle horn of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the time. The Sonata is tonal in character and begins with a flourish on the horn before the second movement’s opening melodic theme. This is memorable but is then replaced by the more energetic second theme before the original melody wins through. The final Allegro, in the form of a rondo, is carefree and rustic in character, interspersed with more rhythmic sections – a fine conclusion to this Sonata. There is another recording of this work that I know of, performed by Rebecca Dodson-Webster and Richard Seiler on Centaur (CRC 2600), however, in comparison I find Zook’s playing more secure than that of Dodson-Webster and the coupling of the present disc more rewarding.

The second sonata on the disc is by the French composer Jean-Michel Damase whose music for horn and piano I have come to know through a disc by David Pyatt (3984-21632-2) that sadly doesn’t include the Sonata. However, thanks to a friend, I have become familiar with it through an Audite recording (AUDITE 97538) where Guglielmo Pellarin’s and Federico Lovato’s tempos are slightly slower. And although the differences are only marginal, it is Ian Zook and Eric Ruple who make the most of this music. Strongly built upon the heritage of French music, it is quite lovely, especially in the nocturne like andante middle movement.

The music of the American Leslie Bassett is new to me. It is clear that his time studying in Paris with Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger paid dividends in this work, as it shows a distinct influence from his period of study with both. There is some nice interplay between the horn and the piano, with both instruments taking the lead alternately, as well as some bold harmonic developments. I particularly like the slow middle movement, especially the way that Bassett uses rhythmic piano writing to heighten the impact of the horn, whilst the final movement seems like a race between horn and piano.

For me, the best known of the pieces presented here is the Sonata In E-Flat for Horn and Piano by York Bowen. It certainly is the work I have listened to the most, with the wonderful recording by the Endymion Ensemble, containing four sonatas for winds and piano (CDLX 7129), a particular favourite of mine. The Sonata is fairly dramatic and was composed in 1937 for Dennis Brain’s father, Aubrey Brain. It is steeped in English romanticism, with its pastoral overtones and its meditative poco lento maestoso middle movement at the work’s heart. The Sonata’s outer movements seem to invoke the countryside and are at times reminiscent of the more pastoral Vaughan Williams’s style but not slavishly so.

This is a very enjoyable disc. Ian Zook’s and Eric Ruple’s playing is excellent throughout and although it might not eclipse Stephen Stirling’s and Michael Dussek’s in the York Bowen, it’s not far behind. Zook’s and Ruple’s performances of the Sixten Sylvan’s and Jean-Michel Damase’s works come out on top, with Leslie Bassett’s piece being a real bonus. This is a most rewarding disc, well recorded and with excellent booklet notes by Ian Zook, briefly introducing the composers and their music. A must for all fans of the horn.

Stuart Sillitoe

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