Musica Incognita - 20th Century Sonatas for Horn and Piano. © 2018 MSR Classics

CD Spotlight

Seldom Recorded

Music for horn and piano,
recommended by GEOFF PEARCE

'... two superb musicians enjoying themselves in music which is not well-known ...'


This fine MSR Classics disc introduces two great performers - Ian Zook on horn and Eric Ruple on piano - and works which are seldom recorded. Even those who may be put off somewhat by the term 'twentieth century music' will enjoy this disc, as the music is certainly not avant-garde in nature, and the disc is so beautifully performed. You will be blown away, as I was.

Sixten Sylvan (1914-2001) was a self-taught composer who worked mostly as a doctor. He loved brass instruments, and could play the horn, and this is evident from the fine writing in his Horn Sonata.

The first movement is quite tonal, and much of the writing is bold and bright. It opens with a bold flourish, and when the music quietens down, it is warm and sunny. The composer sometimes writes contrapuntally, and moments in this music remind me of Carl Nielsen.

Listen — Sixten Sylvan: Allegro (Horn Concerto, 1963)
(track 1, 2:48-3:42) © 2018 Ian Zook :

The second movement is tender and expressive, and, like the first movement, beautifully played. The lovely opening Andante also closes the movement, and there is a contrasting faster section in between.

The final movement is a carefree and jaunty rondo, with syncopation and plenty of modulations adding to the excitement and rounding off this work beautifully. Again here I am often reminded of the music of Nielsen.

The second work, also in three movements, is the Horn Sonata by Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013), who wrote a number of pieces for horn.

The first movement opens ominously with a low horn tune and a rumbling accompaniment before a more bold triumphant tune appears. The ominous figure appears again but seems more cheerful and less ominous this time around. One can hear the influence of earlier French composers in this music.

The quite seductive second movement is a lullaby, with a somewhat playful and endearing middle section. Like all the performances on this disc, it is beautifully played.

Listen — Jean-Michel Damase: Andante (Horn Concerto, 1996)
(track 5, 0:00-0:57) © 2018 Ian Zook :

The final movement begins as a waltz. It is quite tonal but full of contrast, and one never really knows quite where it is going. Predictable this music is not, but it is fresh and full of interest.

I hadn't previously heard of Leslie Bassett (1923-2016), who was a student of Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger. His three-movement sonata is not tonal, but is certainly not dissonant, and is easy to follow and appreciate.

The first movement has a lot of contrasting moods, from stately through somewhat defiant to quiet and expressive. This music is not at all stuffy or academic and would be enjoyable to play.

In the second movement, unhurried but somewhat mysterious in nature, one feels a sort of questioning all the way through. I have to say that I find this music quite fascinating, and I am drawn to Bassett's piano writing in the middle of this movement.

The final movement, a bit of a race, starts on the piano with the horn in hot pursuit, and the momentum is maintained right up until almost the very end. The ending is unexpected and quite surprising. This sonata is a great work for the horn, and I am sure it will gain in popularity outside the US.

Listen — Leslie Bassett: Allegro, ma non troppo (Horn Sonata, 1954)
(track 9, 2:24-3:21) © 2018 Ian Zook :

The final work is by one of my favourite UK composers, York Bowen (1884-1961), who, after a very promising start, fell somewhat out of favour. I think that was because his style was perhaps a little out of step with his contemporaries. His music is fresh and interesting, however, and I do believe he is yet to have his day. The Horn Sonata is a fine work, originally written for Aubrey Brain in 1937, and like the other works on this disc, is in three movements. The first movement is expansive and to me, speaks of an earlier age. It receives a great performance here by Zook and Ruple. The contrasts between the soft, expressive, almost Delius-like passages and those which are bolder and more romantic, are well-realised.

The second movement begins slowly and broadly, with ringing Rachmaninov-like chords in the piano and a defiant horn tune above it. This soon settles into a more reflective section with finely controlled dynamics and careful placement of the notes. This is Romantic music, without a doubt. I find, as with a lot of Bowen’s music, that this looks fondly back from a later place in time, and never wallows in an overindulgence in sentimentality.

The last movement opens in a similar way to the last movement of the first Strauss Horn Concerto. It is happy and jaunty, quite playful, and has a variety of moods, textures and tonal colours. This is music I could play again and again, and never tire of it.

Listen — York Bowen: Allegro con spirito (Horn Sonata in E flat, 1937)
(track 12, 2:34-3:32) © 2018 Ian Zook :

For me, this disc is a winner for the Bowen piece alone.

If you love the horn, or just want to hear two superb musicians enjoying themselves in music which is not well-known, rush out and buy this disc, which will provide you with much enjoyment.

Copyright © 5 June 2019 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia



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