Holloway & Seabourne’s New Music for Horn

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BRITISH WORKS FOR HORN / SEABOURNE: Mille Fiori, Fanfare for 4 Horns.1-4 Encounters for 2 Horns.1,2 The Black Pegasus for Horn & Piano.1,4 Julie Dances for Solo Horn.1 HOLLOWAY: Partitas Nos. 1 & 2.1 Lament for 4 Horns1-4 / 1Ondřej Vrabec, 2Hana Sápková, 3Daniela Roubičková, 4Michaela Vincencová, Fr-hn; 5Mio Sakamoto, pno / Sheva Contemporary SH 241

 This CD, scheduled for release in June, combines the talents of Czech hornist and conductor Ondřej Vrabec and three other talented horn players with the music of British composers Robin Holloway and Peter Seabourne, teacher and pupil.

Although Holloway is a well-known figure of modern British music, his two Partitas here are written somewhat in the style of Bach’s cello suites, meaning that their harmonic language and construction are more conservative, almost Baroque in style. Seabourne’s music, for the most part, is more modern in style and more adventurous, though the opening fanfare is in a more traditional form. The works are not presented in the same order as in the heading; rather, Mille Fiori is followed by the first Holloway Partita, then Seabourne’s Encounters, Holloway’s second Partita and Lament, then Seabourne’s Black Pegasus and Julie Dances.

When I point out Holloway’s admitted indebtedness to Bach, I do not wish to impugn him or the music. It is clearly more modern in its use of harmony, by which I do not mean that it is bitonal or atonal but, rather, that it moves easily and audaciously between keys—subtly but still noticeably—while retaining a strong tonal bias. One of the things I liked about these Partitas was that Holloway created real melodies for the horn to play, but they are not cloying or sentimental. On the contrary, they are interesting and have a wonderful sense of development within them. Nonetheless, as a pupil of Alexander Goehr and a student of the music of Wagner and Debussy, he is just a bit more traditional although, in addition to the adventurous Seabourne, his composition pupils also include Thomas Adès and Huw Watkins.

Vrabec is recorded in a fairly resonant space, almost but not quite at the level of over-reverberation. He has a sterling technique but also a nice, bright tone and plays with emotional commitment. One can hear him at his best in the fourth piece, “Loure,” of Holloway’s Partita No. 1, where his perfect legato and instrumental control are simply breathtaking, or in the ensuing “Gigue” where it is his technique that grabs you.

Interestingly, Seabourne’s Encounters include bits of Holloway’s music in them. As he states in the liner notes, “These brief glimpses are woven into the musical discourse and not intended to be ‘spotted’ in any clever, informed sort of way – they are just chance encounters in the street with an old friend as it were.” Harmonically, they are more advanced than the Holloway Partitas but not as outré as some of Seabourne’s other pieces; they have a tonal bias but some of them lean more towards bitonality. There is also some humor in them, such as the “Scherzo.” In this piece, Vrabec is joined by hornist Hana Sápková, who also boasts a nice, bright tone. Seabourne also uses rather more rhythmic devices in these pieces than Holloway did in his Partitas, to good effect. The “Finale Serioso” is perhaps the most harmonically adventurous piece in the suite, using “rootless” chords and falling figures that somehow always fail to find a home tonality.

The opening Prelude of Holloway’s second Partita also leans a bit more towards bitonality, thought several passages are clearly in C major. This Prelude also sounds, to me, the least similar to Bach in its construction, though it is quite formally laid out; rather, it is the ensuing “Gavotte & Musette” that sounds more Bach-like, certainly so in its rather formal rhythms. The “Sarabande” here is another of his warm, attractive but not-quite-catchy melodic lines. I was particularly impressed by the subtle gradations of volume and breath pressure that Vraec brought to this piece; this is masterful playing on a very high order. Why Vrabec is not as well known internationally as Marie-Luise Neunecker, who is also an outstanding hornist, is beyond me. The Lament for four horns has a nice bittersweet quality about it that I liked very much, and here all four of our hornists produce a mellow blend.

Yet it is Seabourne’s The Black Pegasus for horn and piano that really grabs one. This music is edgy and adventurous; it reaches out and grabs the listener by the throat in the opening bars, eventually relaxing the tempo a bit but still retaining an undercurrent of menace. Part of this is due to the way the piano is recorded, with a very bright, almost metallic sound, played with drive and commitment by Mio Sakamoto. Even in its slowest and quietist passages (it’s in one movement but contains several different sections), the music has an ominous quality about it. I was riveted from first note to last. The piano accompaniment consists largely of rapid, single-note bass figures with sharp chords injected by the right hand, only moving to more melodic treble figures during the “quiet” heart of the piece. Seaborune’s jagged melodic line and continued use of unresolved chords keep this quiet section from becoming warm or comforting in any way. A bit later on, the horn plays strange muted figures that almost sound as if he s giving the raspberry. Once he takes the mute out, the music jumps into a vivace theme in which the piano pounds like the galloping of a runaway horse and the music moves to its conclusion.

The Julie Dances for solo horn, inspired by a photo of Vrabec’s daughter dancing (here given as the cover of this CD), is also a somewhat strange and very imaginative piece. The second part, “Incy Wincy,” simulates a “creepy” spider climbing and falling from a wall, while “Ladybird, Ladybird”  finds the spider running back to his web in a panic. All of these little vignettes are wonderfully captured by Vrabec’s horn playing. We end this little suite with “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” in which Seabourne creates swirling figures that contrast with an spill over one another.

An excellent album, particularly recommended for horn fanciers!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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