This portrait concert that well-loved Czech horn player Radek Baborák devised for Suntory Hall’s Chamber Music Garden was part solo recital, part ensemble concert. In the first half, Baborák performed solo works with pianist Yoko Kikuchi and, in the second half, he played ensemble works with Japanese horn colleagues and a Russian string quartet. What shone through was of course his astounding technique (which he wears very lightly), but also his warm and modest personality and the naturalness of his approach to music in any setting.

Radek Baborák and Yoko Kikuchi
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

The first half consisted of horn arrangements of classical repertoire: three Bach pieces, Mozart’s violin sonata, and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op.73, originally written for clarinet. In the Bach, the two chorale prelude arrangements were played with sensitivity to the contrapuntal writing, but sounded a bit awkward because the horn and piano parts didn’t quite blend as a sonority, unlike on the organ. The lovely aria “Bist du bei mir” from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach displayed Baborák’s wonderful singing tone. The E minor Mozart violin sonata was played with elegance and crisp articulation, which was matched by Kikuchi’s fine playing. Since the melodic lines are often transposed down an octave, it was a bit like hearing a tenor singing a soprano aria, but his artistry was evident.

We know Schumann was fond of the horn, so he probably would have endorsed the Fantasiestücke played on the instrument (after all, he endorsed the violin and cello on publication), especially by such a master of the instrument. Baborák immediately conjured up the Romantic sense of longing in the first movement and the second was lively and supple, with remarkably nimble playing in the middle section. The finale, indicated “quick and with fire”, was exactly that, and at last Baborák could display his dynamic side. He wrapped up the first half with a tender encore, the Valse Triste by Kiev-born Reinhold Glière in support of Ukraine.

Hitoshi Imai, Naoki Ishiyama, Nobuaki Fukukawa and Radek Baborák
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

In the second half, Baborák teamed up with three horn players of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo (past and present) – Nobuaki Fukukawa, Hitoshi Imai and Naoki Ishiyama – in three pieces for horn quartet, and then with the Atrium String Quartet, also CMG participating artists, in Beethoven’s sextet. Such collaborations with other festival artists and local colleagues gave the concert a festive atmosphere.

Beethoven’s rarely heard sextet for two horns and quartet in E flat major was the discovery of the evening. I knew he had composed a horn sonata in his early years inspired by Giovanni Punto, but this sextet seems to have preceded that, possibly composed as early as 1795. It’s a concertante-style work with virtuosic parts for the two horns covering a wide range between them. Baborák and Fukukawa were perfectly matched in their virtuosity, although each have quite a distinct tone, and the Atrium Quartet engaged in vibrant dialogue with them throughout. We heard wonderful cantabile playing in the lyrical Adagio, followed by a buoyant rondo finale that opens with a hunting call – Beethoven’s horn writing here looks forward to his Eroica and subsequent symphonies.

Atrium String Quartet, Nobuaki Fukukawa and Radek Baborák
© Naoya Ikegami | Suntory Hall

Meanwhile, the three horn quartet pieces were very short, but each atmospheric in its own way. The arrangement of Debussy’s choral work Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans transported us to a medieval world with the use of strange modal harmonies, whereas Jean Françaix’s Notturno e Divertimento, an original piece for this instrumentation, was light and playful. The programme concluded solemnly with Bruckner’s sublime hymn-like Andante for four horns (arr. Höltzel). Baborák demonstrated how the horn can be a sensitive chamber music instrument, despite the dearth of original repertoire, and that he is above all a superlative ensemble musician.