Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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New classical tracks: Horn Sonatas

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Horn Sonatas with Zbegniew Zuk, horn; Zbegniew Raubo, piano (album cover)
Horn Sonatas: Zbegniew Zuk, horn; Zbegniew Raubo, piano (Zuk Records)

St. Paul, Minn. — This is a German import that features horn sonatas spanning three centuries, starting at the end of the 18th with Beethoven. Both performers are award-winning musicians from Poland. Zbigniew Zuk plays horn, Zbigniew Raubo is the pianist.

Beethoven wrote his horn sonata for Giovanni Punto, a virtuoso horn player who was well known throughout Europe. How famous was he? When Punto premiered Beethoven's Horn Sonata, Op. 18, in 1800, a music critic put the two men in perspective: "Who is this Beethovener? His name is not well known in musical circles. Of course Punto is very well known."

Every time I listen to this recording, I keep gravitating to this sonata. It's just so beautiful. The horn is powerful, yet melodic. The piano is light, energetic and a perfect complement to the warm, resonant sound of the brass. It's a very playful piece, one that the performers and the audience can both enjoy.

The level of emotion is also intriguing. The horn makes a bold, confident statement in the first movement, while the piano floats along trying to keep pace. It's like a conversation between two old friends. First there's the reunion. You can hear their excitement as they catch up on the latest news. Of course, the news is by turns uplifting and sad, so quiet waves of concentration undulate between the racy melodic runs.

The second movement opens with a soft call to action, almost as if the horn is revealing a secret. The piano keeps inquiring, looking for more information. They come to some kind of consensus and then they can begin to enjoy themselves. The energy level is high in the finale, as the instruments jump on top of one another, both trying to get a word in edgewise.

The sonata by Joseph Rheinberger also grabbed my attention. Rheinberger was a 19th century composer, best known for his organ music. After Hans von Bulow proclaimed Rheinberger an ideal composition teacher, "unequalled anywhere in or near Germany," Some 600 composition students flocked to Munich from all over the world to study with him.

Rheinberger's reputation as a teacher overshadowed his work as a composer, yet he wrote a lot of music in various genres.

Compared to the Beethoven sonata, this one is much more percussive. The horn punches through the music to make its point. The music is very dramatic, with the piano and horn shifting from bold statements to intimate whispering.

There are times when I can almost picture this as a film score from a movie classic like "Casablanca," where there's intrigue, action and, of course, the underlying love story. It awakens in the second movement. The joyful finale signals a happy ending for the characters in this musical soundtrack.

This recording does a great job of demonstrating the full range of possibilities for the horn. Zbigniew Zuk is an expressive performer with a rich, warm tone that encourages careful listening.

His chamber partner, pianist Zbigniew Raubo, does more than frame the horn beautifully; he too is an exquisite performer who stands out in his own right. The music is simple-sounding, yet complex; beautiful, yet challenging.

The photograph on the cover of the CD jacket features the piano keyboard reflected in the bell of the horn. The keyboard is slightly elongated and distorted, suggesting that these two instruments and these players stretch beyond their limits when paired together.

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