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Kerry TURNER (b. 1960)
Candles in the Darkness Op.86 (2016) [6:48]
Couperin Variations Op.71 'Le Bandoline’ (2014) [10:45]
Abide with Me Op.79 (2018) [9:52]
'Twas a Dark and Stormy Night Op.12 - fantasy for horn Op.12 (1987 rev. 2019) [7:00]
Sonata for Horn and Piano Op.13 (1987 rev. 2019) [15:22]
Chaconne for Three Horns Op.26 (1994) [6:37]
Suite for Unaccompanied Horn Op.85 (2017) [7:06]
Kristina Mascher-Turner, Kerry Turner, Frank Lloyd (horn)
Lauretta Bloomer (piano)
rec. 2019, Tonstudio Edlmair & Lenz OG, Vienna
NAXOS 8.579050 [63:48]

This is my first encounter with the music of composer Kerry Turner.  His name will be familiar to members of the French horn-playing fraternity, as he is active in that field as both a performer and composer.  According to the detailed and valuable liner note, "Turner made his mark on the global music community mainly through his numerous compositions for horn quartet.  Indeed, it is mostly due to his activities with the American Horn Quartet....that he has developed his reputation as a legitimate composer."  The disc here is entitled Volume 1 of the Complete Works for Horn, so one imagines that his horn quartet works will feature on later discs.

The majority of works presented here, with the exception of the Chaconne for Three Horns, are pieces for solo horn with or without piano accompaniment.  Turner and his wife Kristina Mascher-Turner play on all of the tracks, so the authority of these performances cannot be questioned.  Likewise, the technical skill of the playing, so these must be considered authoritative reference performances.  Again, for those unfamiliar with Turner's musical style, another quotation from the liner is illuminating: "Turner's compositional goal is to paint a picture, thought or impression as clearly as possible through highly melodic musical language and then communicate it to the listener and performer, so that it might appear in their minds as vividly as if it were on a large movie screen."  Vivid, this music certainly is, although it is here split fairly evenly between the descriptive and evocative: Candles in the Darkness, Abide with Me or 'Twas a dark and stormy night and the wholly abstract music of the Couperin Variations, Sonata or Suite.  The mention of a movie screen in the quotation above is telling as well; of course, it is too simplistic just to create an aural linkage between the horn and the on-screen heroics of a Korngold or John Williams film score, but Turner does have an effective knack for writing sweeping melodies that more than once evoke those great composers. 

The liner note is by Turner himself and he offers valuable insights into the genesis and thought processes behind each work.  Hence, the opening Candles in the Dark springs from a Chinese proverb that says; "it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."  This translates musically into a simple but appealing horn melody which is joined by increasingly elaborate piano writing as more candles are lit.  As with much of the music on this disc, it proves to be an attractive concept executed with skill and effectiveness.  Given Turner's own considerable skill on the horn, it comes as no surprise that he is able to write in a way for the instrument that is clearly demanding but also exploits the full technical potential and expressive range of the instrument.  This is especially clear in the Couperin Variations.  Not for the only time on this disc - see also the Chaconne and Suite - Turner mentions Bach as a direct inspiration - here the Goldberg Variations.  In his set of seven variations and finale, he very effectively creates a concise and well-argued work in its sub-eleven-minute span while also showcasing the full technical arsenal available to the skilled horn player.  I also rather like the way in this piece the writing flits between contemporary sections which sit beside attractively gentile neo-classicisms.  Mention must be made here, too, for the pianist Lauretta Bloomer, who is clearly a close and sensitive musical partner.  On a purely technical front, achieving an effective recorded balance between a horn and keyboard is tricky but it has been very well done here, with the detail of the piano writing registering but at the same time the horn has the presence and power you want without overwhelming the keyboard contribution.

I particularly enjoyed Abide with Me.  Buried in the texture of this work is the hymn of that name, and in the opening pages at least the references to it are passing and fragmentary but as the piece progresses, so this always moving melody gradually appears.  In the liner, Turner references his struggle to hold true to his Christian faith in an increasingly secular world.  I assume the gradual emergence of the hymn melody from the midst of angular and energetic musical chaos that surrounds it is an allegory for Turner's abiding religious beliefs.  Whether that is a true interpretation does not really matter - this is an impressive and enjoyable work given a compelling performance here by the composer himself.

The Sonata for Horn and Piano which follows is the earliest work on this disc.  Here, the player is Kristina Mascher-Turner and this is another hugely accomplished piece of playing.  The writing is muscularly athletic and appealingly lyrical by turns.  Turner's harmonic language is quite individual but resolutely tonal - the mobile bass lines have a neo-classical spirit and energy while the overlying harmony is distinctly 20th century.  In all the works on this disc, Turner is very good at not over-extending the material, so this fifteen-minute sonata has a good feeling of scale but also concision.  The central Andante is quite cool and detached - albeit in a rather beautiful way - without the extra-musical 'struggle' that can be found in Abide with Me.  The closing movement is described by Turner as a Toccata with both players making light work of the bustling writing.

The only ensemble piece on this disc is the Chaconne for Three Horns.  Here the husband and wife team are joined by the great Frank Lloyd.  As mentioned earlier, Bach is again the inspiration - here the great violin Chaconne from the third violin Partita.  Actually, the inspiration goes as far as a direct quotation as one point with some running semiquavers thrown around between the three players with nonchalant virtuosity.  Turner makes little or no use of any extended playing techniques in the works on this disc although at one point he does seek to evoke whale song in a brief but rather effective passage.  Here, the work is set out with ten variations and a finale in its six-an-a-half minute time span.  In his liner, Turner states that he sought to "compose this piece with every possible sound and colour available on the horn."  The ensemble work between the three players is superb and this makes for a very impressive virtuoso work.

The disc closes with a final homage to Bach.  The six cello suites are a staple of every horn player of any ability.  This work is Turner's version of such a suite, so this is a sequence of four movements, whose titles mimic those of a baroque instrumental suite; Prelude, Allemande, Sarabande and Gigue.  Again, Turner almost quotes from the original works here.  I am not a horn player, but this writing with its widely spaced lines sound ferociously difficult with the player required to make a coherent musical line where, on the page at least, none exists.  It must be said that Kerry Turner as player manages this magnificently to the point where the technical demands are able to fade into the background and the listener can simply enjoy the musical pleasure of listening to the work.  Again, the concision is a real strength - the four movements lasting just over seven minutes in total.

With excellent engineering and an enlightening liner note, this is a very auspicious volume 1.  Interestingly, perhaps unusually, the liner quotes Turner as saying that he feels his music is only truly 'born' once it has been properly recorded.  Well, that they certainly have been here, although I would have thought most composers would shy away from their music being 'set' in that manner.  I did wonder before listening to this disc whether an hour of music for horn would be too much for a single listening session.  Credit is due to the quality of the performing and the musical interest in the varied works that this was not the case.  This is a disc of particular interest to horn specialists but one where the musical qualities on display deserve to widen its appeal.

Nick Barnard

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