Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Review of "Horn Discoveries" by Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis, Kotowa Machida, and Philip Mayers 

A new recording by Sarah Willis is a welcome occasion. Willis has developed a powerful presence on the classical music scene for her innovative and charismatic interviews, commentaries, live chats, and other televisionary productions. But she is a musician first, and her new recording called “Horn Discoveries,” is a worthy addition to her discography.

It is no simple matter to program newly written works. One has little ability to predict the final shape, complexity, quirks, or ultimately the personality of the music one requests. How can one be certain of the way they will share space on a recording? Willis worked with close colleagues and friends and was comfortable enough with each person to make very specific requests and/or alterations. The end result is a recording that has a pleasing shape, centered on the horn trio medium but spiced with works for horn and piano, and for two horns.  

The most exciting work was saved for last. Mason Bates is a composer on the rise. His works, often featuring electronica and unusual percussion parts, are beginning to making the rounds. I reviewed his work “Alternative Energy” as performed by the Hartford Symphony last spring.

The opening movement of the Bates work on this recording, called “Mainframe Topics,” was woven from colorful rhythmic threads pulled tight in ideas that develop fluently into refreshing and often surprising directions. The first movement connects directly into a lyrical interlude called “Marine Snow” in which the interplay of lyrical lines is entrancing and the high horn writing (and playing) is quite lovely. The transformation of ideas in the final movement is successful and entertaining. This is a significant work, like others by this composer, and is a solid addition to the horn trio literature.

I was also fond of the five short works written for two horns by Klaus Wallendorf. Wallendorf is a longtime member of the horn section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and a gifted composer and arranger. He speaks numerous languages and is clever and funny in all of them. Like his verbal virtuosity, these five short pieces for horn duet move in and out of idioms fluently. Behind the references and puns is an almost hidden planning and sophistication. They are each built well. To listen carefully is to smile.

The recording includes six arrangements of famous short works, each rethought for horn trio by David Riniker. Riniker is a Swiss cellist who been a member of the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1995.

Often the most familiar tunes are taken for granted. So are arrangements of them. But Riniker has arranged each with imagination. The famous “Melodie” by Tchaikovsky is the final movement of his Souvenir d'un lieu cher (Memory of a place beloved), written during a two-week stay at a residence of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. She was not there. The two loved the dance of suggestion and anticipation. They never met.

The transcription is set in the same key as the original for violin and piano. The horn sings the opening melodic phrase, then the violin takes over, but the interplay between the original and the adaptation is effective.

Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op.19 No. 4 that follows is transposed to D minor. There is a short cadenza prior to the tempo I, and the closing moments are thinned. Listen for the piano line, it sounds fresh and surprising because the role of the piano was submerged to give the horn room.

The Dvořák “Humoreske” Op. 101 No. 7, was transposed up a half-step to G major.  The interlude is rich and lovely in arrangement, and the performance is joyful. The horn solo at the più lento is strong and bold. The final presentation of the famous tune is tasty.

The arrangement of the “Romance de Nadir” from the Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs des perles” is an opportunity to hear how the horn can produce long lyrical lines filled with vocal expression. Willis plays the line simply and allows its energy to unfold slowly the way the best singers would.

The arrangement of “Clair de lune” by Debussy is a great example of how the piece should be performed in its original piano solo version. Debussy notated stretched time into the score, so very little needs to be stretched beyond it. Listen and learn.

In the final arrangement of L'Abeille (The Bee) from the Op. 13 collection for violin and piano by François (not Franz!!) Schubert. Willis proves that the horn can “bee” with the best of them.

The recording opens with “Song of a New World” by Richard Bissill, who was Principal Horn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1984-2009 and is now Principal Horn of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The construction of the work seems flawed. The music returns too predictably to a motive that is over exposed. The music emerges out of extended soliloquy, but then only a few minutes later a second extended soliloquy stops the unfolding. But there are effective moments, and the final section is supercharged and worth the wait.

This is a recording that holds up to repeated listenings. It has a nice recorded presence. The placements and balances were logical. Cheers to pianist Philip Mayers who supports much more than it might appear on first listening. Mayers can make the background sing, then effortlessly glide into the spotlight, disappearing again before you realize how great he sounded. Violinist Kotowa Machida brought the virtuosity of blending into perfect focus.

Willis has harmonized a recording of diverse ensembles, composers and musicians. This is a recording that would be a welcome gift for a good friend.


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