Not new enough


Mark Papworth and Amanda Millar

Move Records MCD 632

Here’s a perplexing product: a set of four sonatas (one is actually a sonatina) for natural horn with accompaniment for fortepiano or cello. I know Papworth’s ability from another Move Records issue of Wagner Ring chunks, Siegfried’s Story; Millar is an unknown quantity in my experience. They have devoted their talents to these works by Thomas McConochie, an Australian musician with an interest in the antique brass instrument who produces music to flesh out an almost non-existent contemporary repertoire. Of course, the horn in its valveless form continued in use up to (most notably) Brahms, who had a penchant for the older mysteries, but you’ll rarely come across readings of the C minor Symphony in which natural horns appear.

Now this CD’s title seems to refer to the horn with crooks as the old bottle. Fair, enough. But what is being poured in can hardly be classed as a new wine: it’s vintage, but undistinguished. McConochie’s formal patterns are predictable, as are his melodic shapes and harmonic structure. It had to be so, you’d think, given the natural instrument’s capabilities. For many of us, the natural horn is exemplified for these times by the Prologue and Epilogue in Britten’s Serenade Op. 31. Even given the limitations imposed on the English composer, you’ll hear nothing so advanced here. I can’t see how these compositions have added substantially to the repertoire; rather, they return to ground that was well-trodden by the time of Haydn and Mozart.

The CD doesn’t contain details about the four works’ lengths, so here goes. Like all of them, the Sonata No. 1 in F for Natural Horn and Fortepiano Op. 14 has three movements lasting 15′ 11″: Allegro (6′ 09″), Andante (4′ 58″), Sonata-Rondo (4′ 04″). Next comes the Horn Sonatina No. 5, Op. 16 No. 3 with a duration of 10′ 02″: Presto (3′ 09″), Adagio (2′ 31″), Presto (4′ 22″). A novel Sonata for Natural Horn and Cello in D Major, Op. 22 takes up 13′ 27″: Allegro (5′ 09″), Recitative and Aria (5′ 25″), Presto (2′ 53″). To finish, the Sonata No. 2 in E flat for Natural Horn and Fortepiano, Op. 15 lasts for 12′ 58″: Allegro (5′ 24″), Andante con moto (3’23”), Maestoso (4′ 11″). The whole CD takes 51′ 38″, which is a bit on the under-nourished side. But then, you have to take into consideration the quality of, and degree of difficulty involved in handling, these scores.

I’m probably wrong as far as the horn side of things is concerned, but the piano aspect is unassuming; quite a few of these movements a competent player could sight-read. Both instruments take up the simple first subject of the Sonata No. 1, the piano making most of the running as the movement moves forward, after an overused rhythmic motif that sounds like Mozart . . . no, more a contemporary whose imagination has dipped considerably. The phrases are four-square and nothing new is allowed to interrupt the Alberti bass-rich accompaniment. As for the melodies, these are well enough in their openings but fail of their promise with several awkwardnesses in their rounding-off. What of modulation and harmonic interest, you cry? Forget it. The second movement boasts an ‘Oom-Pah Section’ but this lasts about a minute; the segment sounds like desiccated klezmer, and goes nowhere but simply serves as a diversion from its calm, bland surroundings.

For his finale McConochie hits 6/8 and the suggestions of hunting horns with a few more stopped notes than we’ve heard so far. Still, this is a restrained hunt with an unhealthy penchant for repeated notes and chords. The piano’s solo ritornelli are rather frequent and the main subject of this Sonata-Rondo (rather more of the latter than the former) is yet another instance of the first half being let down by its consequent. You can take as an instance any of the Mozart horn concerto finales but their buoyancy and innate verve show that McConochie has so much to learn about sustaining interest.

Incidentally, the two outer sonatas are written for natural horn ‘and fortepiano’, but the keyboard instrument employed here in both is a normal pianoforte. Would the earlier piano’s use have made much difference? Possibly, mainly as a credible partner for Papworth’s muffled timbre.

For a bit of a giggle, the sonatina is subtitled ‘A Little Bit of Sturm and Drang’; and so it seems, right at the start, but the proposed aesthetic doesn’t last. The first movement is gifted with an opening that is arresting for about two bars, then moves into banality and more awkwardnesses, especially in the use of repeated notes. The horn part is secondary; for sure, Papworth gets to play the themes but the keyboard dominates in treatment and overall activity. As for a prevailing compositional period, it’s still uncooked Mozart. Matters are reversed in the slow movement where the horn gets dibs on the first mournful tune; the central B section moves in to the relative major before the A opening is repeated, This section has more going for it than its predecessor with the establishment of an Eroica-indebted funeral march rhythmic pattern and a definite arch to the main melody. The finale presents as an allegro rather than the prescribed presto and the piano sets most of the running as the horn is limited to finding a relevant note and sitting on it while the keyboard goes around an unarresting series of modulations in the various episodes of this rondo.

Next comes the horn and cello work. Its opening allegro improves in performance security on the exposition’s repeat but the modulations in the development cannot be regarded as much more than predictable and – every so often – clumsy. But the musicians themselves sound uncertain in their work here with very little colour invested in phrasing. The following Recitative is a short introduction with a metrical inevitability that persists until a short horn cadenza leads us into a 6/8 lyric during which the horn enjoys a good deal of exposure; Millar provides an arpeggiated support before taking on the central section’s melody-line herself.. The cellist’s articulation and production values are not always reliable with some obvious difficulties in her part’s upper reaches, so that it’s something of a relief when this movement draws to its end.

There is another trace of the Mozart horn concerto finales in this sonata’s concluding Rondo, but the opening section and its returns prove very welcome after some strained interludes (how many are there? One?). You can see how the work is meant to bounce past with infectious jollity, but this doesn’t come off. Perhaps the players take these pages too slowly; possibly the movement requires more determination in attack and dynamic variation. Whatever the case, music of this simplicity needs high expertise to give it any performance interest because there is not much to grab onto as far as content goes.

The composer believes he learned much from writing his first sonata and feels that this is reflected in the more equable partnership of his E flat Sonata. This may be so but you have to wonder at his idea of distributing the goods. For instance, the opening Allegro‘s second subject is announced by the piano, then the horn, at which point the keyboard’s accompaniment is both prosaic and intrusive. But by this stage of the CD you realize that not much is going to emerge that is strikingly original and the compositional methodology is far from sophisticated, as evidenced by the development pages which hold several instances of ungainly part-writing. Even the scale passages for both executants come across as laboured, hard work rather than imaginative flights.

Not much to take exception to in the Romanza, although McConochie can’t avoid odd strokes that a more aware hand would have struck out like the descending bass’s conclusion before the move into a minore variant, and a piano left hand of no little tedium. With the last movement, we hit the world of variations but not in a big way: there are only three of them and all are quite predictable, if vehicles for Papworth’s expertise more than anything else. McConochie’s theme is four-square and plain and nobody is really stretched – except the horn in the movement’s unexpectedly athletic coda.

Here again, as in so much of the whole CD, I sense a lack of character. You have to take into account the necessary limitations of the brass line; even so, nothing here grips the imagination – neither the content of the works themselves, nor the interpretations offered. I can imagine that the natural horn community might be pleased with these additions to their archives but nothing here advances the instrument’s expressive or technical horizons.

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