ENDNOTES, June 2020
John Ireland et al. at the online English Music Festival; music for horn by Peter Seabourne and Robin Holloway, reviewed by Stuart Millson
With our concert halls closed and orchestras silent, the performance of classical music has become the preserve of solo artists, broadcasting via the internet. This year, the English Music Festival – usually held in rural Oxfordshire – was salvaged by a number of its loyal and regular musicians recording talks and concerts from their homes. The listening public were able to log on to the EMF website and follow a “virtual” Festival performance. One of the highlights of the event was a recital of British piano music, played by Duncan Honeybourne, from his home in Dorset. Introducing each item, Mr. Honeybourne provided an extremely well-thought-out sequence of works, distinguished especially by Vaughan Williams’s meditation on the Tudor music of Orlando Gibbons (the Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13) and John Ireland’s expansive, three-movement, 1940 evocation of the Channel Islands, Sarnia – the ancient Roman name for Guernsey.
Duncan Honeybourne’s living room may not have provided the ideal acoustic for the music, but there was no doubting the dramatic atmosphere, pulse of natural feeling – especially in the elemental movement, Song of the Springtides – and the tantalising, almost impressionistic colours and supernatural feeling summoned up by his impassioned interpretation. The Neolithic world of the first movement, Le Catioroc (the name of an ancient site on the island), fully encapsulates the composer’s mood and artistic philosophy; one of using music as a means of awakening brooding forces and emotions from the landscape, bathed as it seems in the light of almost other-worldly sunshine, and with sea and the echo of folklore ever present. Ireland’s music often celebrates and describes a particular place but transforms it into a dimension of dreamscape and supernatural hallucination.
With no real people before him, Honeybourne still provided the true virtuoso’s touch for his locked-down audience, the music surging at the end through the soloist’s fingers and whole body – to the extent that he almost rose from his piano stool at the end. If this performance had taken place at the English Music Festival’s main venue of Dorchester Abbey, a standing ovation would surely have followed.
Thankfully, recordings continue to appear in this time of uncertainty, with the Sheva contemporary label issuing a magnificent collection of music for horn by two of our finest modern musical craftsmen, Robin Holloway (b. 1943) and Peter Seabourne (b. 1960). The performer is the Czech horn-player, Ondrej Vrabec. Mr. Vrabec has built up a reputation, not just as an instrumentalist but as a conductor, both in his native country and in Japan and Iceland. Also included are fellow horn-players of the younger generation, Michaela Vincencova, Hana Sapakova and Daniela Roubickova – with the Japanese pianist, Mio Sakamoto particularly brilliant in some of the early-on, fiendishly involved passages in Peter Seabourne’s rhapsody for horn and piano, The Black Pegasus. The composer describes “slow chimes” which “herald an extended melancholic cantilena” – before the miraculous galloping horse of the title dashes out of our sight.
Seabourne’s seven miniatures for horn, on nursery themes, entitled Julie Dances, provide a superior form of musical diversion, as does his Encounters – five duets for horns, establishing enormous contrasts between an opening Idyll to the Finale Serioso. And hearing the horn in such “close contact” as this, the horn’s character – so often a Mahlerian wash of sound in an orchestra, but here in the spotlight – demonstrates the extreme virtuosity of the instrument.
Written in the spring of 1985, Robin Holloway’s Partita No. 1 (written for the great Barry Tuckwell) consciously pays homage to Bach, especially given the antique-world titles of each movement: Prelude, Courante, Sarabande, Loure and Gigue. Holloway is a master of subtle, harmonic, lyrical flow – and it is as if a great master from the classical world has come into our own time, not as a pastiche or as a time-warp curiosity, but as the re-assertion of those tonal values which make music truly what it is.
The equally splendid second partita, again from 1985, is dedicated to a friend of the composer, John Kerrigan, whose birthplace, Ireland, is celebrated in the penultimate, Irlandaise movement, but not before a further exposition by Holloway of Bach-inspired structures in the Gavotte and Musette and soulful Sarabande.
It is not often that we associate modern composers with civic occasions, but Peter Seabourne brings us the bright sunshine of a celebratory day in Lincolnshire, in his fanfare for four horns, Mille Fiori, written for the 2011 Spalding Flower Festival. Perhaps, like Elgar’s Civic Fanfare forHereford, Seabourne is reviving a forgotten genre of music. As he once remarked, “My music is of its time, but I see myself as part of the continuum.”
CD; Holloway and Seabourne, works for horn. Sheva, catalogue number 241.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review