“I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape”.
Researching the origins and evolution of the horn is a fascinating exercise, both because of the instrument’s versatility and the surprising geographical diversity that surrounds its development. From its origins of shells, horns and hollowed-out bones of ancient animals to today’s three-octave chromatic horn, dozens of centuries of refinement have passed. One of the most appreciated intermediate stages of this journey is to be found in 17th-century Europe, when hunting horns were created. Their appearance resembles the modern instrument, with coiled metal tubes leading into a wide bell and capable of emitting several natural harmonics. From these, the natural horn was constructed, a model which was introduced into the orchestra and with which, even without valves, players achieved the various notes by means of the most varied techniques. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote for this instrument, but also, curiously, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
Despite the fact that in 1865 horns with pistons had already been in circulation for half a century and were fully accepted in Austria and Germany, Brahms, always very attached to tradition, decided to write his Trio for horn, violin and piano in E flat major, Op. 40 for Waldhorn, a natural horn, an instrument, by the way, played by his father Johann Jakob. This choice was made on the basis of the timbre parameter, the reason for the great controversy generated by the introduction of the valves. Some performers and composers felt that the new mechanism compromised the authenticity and beauty of the horn’s original sound, which was sombre and mysterious, and prevented the optimal development of its legato smoothness. Moreover, the natural horn allowed the appropriate dynamic balance to be achieved, considering the volume reached by pianos of the time and violins with gut strings.
György Ligeti (1923-2006) conceived his 1982 Trio for horn, violin and piano in homage to Johannes Brahms, so it replicates the instrumental template of his Op. 40, as well as the division into four movements using formal schemes and scholastic thematic strategies. Although one of the Hungarian composer’s main virtues lay in his ability to generate and consolidate new compositional languages and systems (such as, for example, the so-called “micro-polyphony”), he never lost sight of the Western musical tradition. In fact, in his maturity, Ligeti turned his gaze more intensely towards the past to adopt a language of his own that he called “non-atonality” or “non-diatonic diatonism”, in which tonal chords, popular melodies, quotations from other authors or more.
Surely, this “different and indecipherable musical reality”, as Ligeti described the language of his trio, was much less cryptic for the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra (b. 1953), one of the most renowned Latin American composers of our time. Sierra was a student of Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg between 1979 and 1982, and like his master, he has succeeded in writing brilliant, direct music with its own identity. Sierra synthesises the European avant-garde with melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of Latin American folk song, jazz, salsa and African metrics. He calls this influence of Caribbean folklore “tropicalisation”. The trio featured on this album, made up of Manuel Escauriaza on the horn, Miguel Colom on violin and Denis Pascal on piano, commissioned Sierra to write a piece that he composed between 2020 and 2021.