BAX: Horn Sonata. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Sonata for Horn and Piano (completed by Yates); Quintet in D for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Cello, and Piano; Household Music. Peter Francomb (French horn), Victor Sangiorgio (piano), Royal Northern Sinfonia Chamber Ensemble. Dutton Epoch CDLX 7373 TT: 72:05.

Obscure corners. Kudos to Dutton for its willingness to take on neglected repertoire. Arnold Bax these days has almost disappeared. Once popular pieces like Tintagel and The Garden of Fand have received few new recordings, and good luck trying to find them on concert programs. For that matter, good luck finding a concert program these days, at least in the States. For a long time, the Vaughan Williams estate would not allow the performance of early works. Even now, some of them still lie under embargo. However, we've had recent recordings of a raft of early songs, chamber and orchestral works, often from the Albion label (the recording arm of the Vaughan Williams Society). The program on this disc consists of works featuring the French horn.

At the height of his reputation, Bax was considered a leading modern symphonist. His work appeared in one of my mother's textbooks from the Thirties. He became Master of the King's Music (the British musical equivalent of Poet Laureate). Except among specialists and British music cultists like me and, he has disappeared from public awareness. Sic transit. Bax wrote his Horn Sonata at the age of 18. In one movement, it requires both a virtuoso horn player and a virtuoso pianist. It roars in one big Romantic rush. It shows the remarkable extent to which Bax had absorbed the masters of the late 19th century. This doesn't sound like typical student work -- complex textures handled with assurance, a long outpouring of music without a stumble. However, it also doesn't sound much like typical Bax. It's more generic. If I must criticize, I would point to the lack of conversation between the two instruments. Instead, they tend to talk over one another -- often the sign of a young composer, trying for significance in every note.
The Ralph Vaughan Williams Sonata for Horn in a sense misleads. Parts of it are missing and may not even have been written out by the composer. The horn part is, however, complete. Conductor and composer Martin Yates has completed the work. He performed similar ministrations on E. J. Moeran's Symphony No. 2, Richard Arnell's Symphony No. 7, and other scores in disarray. At any rate, it raises the question how much of this score really is Vaughan Williams. The composer worked on it around 1903. Don't expect a masterpiece (after all, very few horn sonatas are), but you will hear a lovely work indeed. Yates knows his Vaughan Williams (he's conducted quite a bit of the composer). For the piano part, he has recreated the composer's style from the fragments of accompaniment the composer left behind and the piano parts in songs and other chamber works from roughly the same period. Yates takes advantage of a lucky break, because Vaughan Williams's style changed markedly during this time, a bit like a pinball hitting the flippers. Perhaps, however, Yates knows the composer all too well, in that he doesn't resist the temptation to use (consciously or unconsciously) ideas that point to music written at least a decade later. I should add that I nit-pick here. Most listeners won't notice.

The music eschews the chromaticism of roughly contemporary works like The House of Life song cycle, probably because the composer knew that the horn -- even the modern valved horn -- isn't really a chromatic instrument. The horn can do chromatic music, but a bit like a dog walking on its hind legs, possible but not natural. The opening movement's themes have prominent fourths, fifths, and diatonic runs. You may find it hard to distinguish not only one theme from another but one movement from another. Blink and you miss the opening to the slow second movement, since it follows the first without a break and because its first theme is also the first theme of the opening movement. You can easily mistake it as a coda to the previous movement. I did.

Vaughan Williams titles the second movement "Romanza." The composer used many common terms idiosyncratically. For example, cantabile usually directs a player to give a singing quality to a passage. Vaughan Williams seems to give this marking the meaning, "this line is important," so "singing" means "sing out." In the same way, a "romanza" usually indicates a narrative form like a ballad or an ardent, simple, lyric movement. Vaughan Williams certainly produces something that fits this definition, but he also gives something more. Some of his most profound music has this title. For him, the designation may have meant a meditation. The horn sonata's slow movement is a simple A-B-A structure and more contemplative than ardent.
The third movement consists of a driving scherzo and lyrical trio. The latter has the sweep of a Tchaikovsky waltz. Both Vaughan Williams's scherzo and trio exemplify his ability to produce memorable, dramatic ideas that immediately grab a listener, even at this early point, before he found his mature language. It's been a month since I first heard the movement, and it's already become part of my mental juke box.
The finale carries, in its bluff rhythms and in certain phrases, seeds of the Toccata marziale of 1924. There are some arresting con sordino horn effects, whether with hand or actual mute, I can't say.

In a scarce solo chamber repertoire, this sonata has more interest than most. If horn players can learn the Beethoven horn sonata, they can learn this one. Yates has constructed a work that -- while not echt Vaughan Williams -- nevertheless makes a claim on listeners beyond mere curiosity.
Richard Mühlfeld, a clarinetist whose playing lured Brahms out of retirement to compose four great chamber works for the instrument, performed in London in the 1890s and inspired several composers to compose for the clarinet, John Ireland's Sextet a lovely example. Perhaps Vaughan Williams also wrote this Quintet with Mühlfeld's playing in mind, though I doubt it. Most of the telling solo passages in the work come from the horn. Vaughan Williams displays, in his mid-twenties, structural assurance and mastery of the Brahms-Dvorák idiom. Again, he has this gift for arresting themes and the grand gesture, revealed in the opening measures.

The first movement is a sonata, with two ideas per each subject group, each one developed (Lewis Foreman, writer of the liner notes, disagrees). The second movement, "Intermezzo," follows Brahms's example of substituting an allegretto for a true scherzo. It dances to a Czech-like beat, reminding us how much Vaughan Williams admired Dvorák. Here the clarinet takes the lead, although interest is distributed through all the parts. I particularly admire a brief duet between clarinet and muted horn, a new sound more brilliant than deliberately strange.
The richly beautiful slow movement shows us Vaughan Williams the poet. One foreshadowing of the later Vaughan Williams is his penchant for the Magic Modulation, not just the movement to an unexpected key, but the kind of harmonic ambiguity that raises a kind of shimmer or even a slight frisson in the sound. Again, he handles the large forces with assurance and shows his penchant for new colors. He even takes risks, notably giving the horn a brief cell that becomes an idée fixe, daring us to get bored. However, he shifts his textures and harmonies so well and so subtly, the risk pays off.

The slow movement leads directly to the finale, where I find a falling-off, compared to the previous movements. The composer stuffs it too full of material. Although much of it delights (especially, for me, its Dvorákian syncopations), transitions among ideas often run to the formulaic, and some are just clumsy. On the other hand, one hears in one theme the "Englishness" of the composer trying to get out. Still, the finale doesn't "ruin" the rest of the score. I hope the Quintet can enter the repertory of lesser-known works that occasionally get performed, especially since late Romanticism is still so popular.

Household Music (great title): 3 Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes, a late chamber masterwork, comes from an odd inspiration. In 1940, reading of people sheltering in the London Underground from the German bombing campaign, the composer thought it might be nice to have music to play while they waited. He accordingly wrote Household Music for any combination of instruments, so long as they could negotiate the ranges of the parts. It's a brilliant musical conception, but idiosyncratic, practically speaking. He assumes not only that people will flee with their instruments, but with his score (which they will have practiced -- it ain't an easy read). Nevertheless, you can't call this work a throwaway. The composer put his best into it. Later, he settled on a combination of strings and horn for the published version. I've also heard it with strings and oboe and with recorder consort. Most of the recordings I've listened to have been with string orchestra and horn, although lately the trend has gone toward the chamber combination here. However, I wish someone would record it as a chamber piece with a motley collection of instruments, and bring the piece back to its roots.
Vaughan Williams uses the three tunes "Crug-y-bar," "St. Denio," and "Aberystwyth" and turns them into a fantasia, a scherzo, and a variation set, respectively. In the first, all sorts of ornamental lines surround the tune, which pokes out here and there, very much in the manner of the Tudor fantasias for viol consort. In the second, the sturdy, striding original gets transformed into a light scherzo and lyrical sort-of trio. It's not a traditional scherzo and trio, by any means, since the composer abbreviates the return of the scherzo down to, really, coda size. The melancholy "Aberystwyth" receives the most extended treatment in the form of theme with eight variations. Throughout all three movements, Vaughan Williams weaves threads of effortless counterpoint and creates a real conversation among, at least, the string quartet. If I picked a nit, it's that he doesn't really give the horn much to do, especially in the last movement. Still, it's a fine piece to listen to.

For me, the repertory makes the disc, although the performers play quite well. Francomb does heroic work in the two sonatas, and Sangiorgio matches him, especially in the Bax. Elsewhere Sangiorgio proves an alert and sensitive chamber partner. In the "Aberystwyth" fantasia, either the engineers have under-miked Francomb or he plays as if he's afraid to overwhelm the other parts. One can barely hear him. Still, if you don't have this repertoire -- probably the Bax sonata and definitely the Vaughan Williams sonata -- this is a fine choice, despite the doublings on Hyperion with the Nash Ensemble.

S.G.S. (August 2020)