Mention the Schumann Concertstück for four horns and orchestra to any horn player and you’ll get a reaction - usually fear or a manic rgin. The challenges Schumann injected into this score are mammoth, from the repeated ascents tothe high E above top C (thinking as Horn in F) - the accepted ceiling was pretty much top C - to the velocity required in the finale, to the long lines of the slow movement.
This is a fine line-up, with Sarah Willis of the Berliner Philharmoniker joining three other fine players of our time. John Wilson, who seemingly turns everything he touches to goold, directed the Manchester-based BBC Philharmoic in a reading of the utmost clarity, with perfectly chosen tempi, Here is the first movement, with its fanfare opening (a real “we’ve arrived” is ever there was one) to its powerful climax with all four horns at maximum dynamic level:
The slow movement, a Romanze, is glorious in thsi performance, perhaps the finest ever recorded - the tenderness, the whispering horns (not two words often juxtaposed!), the sense of clam, repose and pure stillness is extraordinary. And, again that clarity of orchestral detain from Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic:
The finale is numble and yet carries dark shades - never has a kinship between the Concertstück and the composer’s “Rhenish” Symphony seemed so telling:
The Weber Concertino is also a pece whispered about in dark corners by hornists, principally because of the high D natural above top C (sounding G natural) at the very end - of all places. Lots of time before it for the player’s lips to get nice and tired. What marks out Owen and Wilson’s performance is the capturing of the spirit of the piece.
Begins as if in the forests of Freischütz; soon the mood lightens somewhat before explding into fanfare-based lines. It also includes the most deliciously light section, full of fun and frolickery:
You might want to prepare yourself for this - a Cadenza in which the horn player has to play chords on the instrument. This is achieved by playing one note (a low note, a 'fundamental') and singing a prescribed note through the instrument while still sounding the low note. The theory is that other notes will sound because of the activation of the harmonic series. Anyway, here it is:
. and just listen to the line garlanded with trills in the final Polacca (and onwards, then, to that screamer at the end!):
Richard Strauss' two horn concertos are from very different periods of his compositional career. The first is early, a work full of youthful heroism and swagger; the second is much later, terrifyingly difficult (as one of my teachers once said of the first page of the horn part, “There’s never been a study written like it”).
First, the Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op. 11 (1882/3), its opening full of swagger and arpeggio-based fanfares, the horn's second entry a long-breathed, lyrical melody, exquisite and lovely. And so it certainly sound here. The achivement of thei sperformance lies not in the extrversion, fine though that aspect is, but in the chamber-music detail of the quieter passages, Wilson attending to this with X-Ray spectacles:
The woodwind countermelodies in the beautiful slow movement are superbly done by the principals of the BBC Phihlarmonic; the remarkable contrasting section, with its triplet repeated chords in the wind, is magical, as is Owen's legato throughout:
The finale contains some wonderful crowning high notes (sounding E flats) from Owen; the coda, faster, is properly exciting, off-beats phenomenal from all concerned:
The Second Concerto is a mature, ripened masterpiece. Owen realises this, and gives the music space and a surprising (although not overly-intrusive) amount of vibrato. Some of the writing is terrifyingly difficult, but does not sound so here, a testament to all concernes (in particular, a passage all in semiquavers, with added grace notes for horn which is then echord by strings sounds, if not easy, part of the grace of late Strauss rather than allied to the heart-on-sleeve virtuosity of the First Concerto):
The second movement is a lyrical, sometines heroic, dream here; but how light is the finale? Like a feather, wind and strings absolutely on the ball, Owen brilliant throughout, full of character, technically perfect:
One cannot do without the great Dennis Brain in these concertos, but Owen offers himself as a modern counterpart. There is no higher praise than to say that he suffers not in comparison: Here’s Brain in Concerto No. 1; and in No. 2 (both Philharmonia / Sawallisch).
The second disc in this horn-orientated post is from the horns of the Munich opera house, a disc entitled Voyager; especially relevant as it includes an arrangement by Pascal Deuber of the Richard Strauss Second Horn Concerto!
A little background from the record company:
In 2023 the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is marking the 500th anniversary of its formation with a series of releases by a number of its outstanding ensembles, all of which document the versatility of the orchestra and of its members. The second ensemble to be showcased by this series are the Munich Opera Horns representing the horn section from the Bayerische Staatsoper. As its title implies, Voyager takes its listeners on a musical journey through time and space from the origins of the natural horn to the valve horn as a regular part of any symphony orchestra. The works presented range from original music for small ensembles to newly arranged orchestral pieces that feature the horn as a solo, concertante instrument to works that have been specially composed for the Munich Opera Horns. Konstantia Gourzi’s work Voyager 2 was commissioned by the Bayerische Staatsoper and written specially for the Munich Opera Horns. The present release not only represents its world-premiere performance, it is also conducted by the composer herself.
The disc opens with a piece for four alphorns: Vom Eggishorn byHans-Jürg Sommer (born 1950), played on four alphorns. The Munich horn sound is warm anyway - this is like taking a bath in the sound of the horn for 56 seconds:
So, above, we had Richard Strauss’ Second Horn Concerto as it is usually heard. Here, it is heard for solo horn with horn ensemble in an arrangement by Deuber. The transcription is expert - what emerges is a polyphonic web of horn-ness contratsed with moments of über-heroism: the swagger of the original solo part multiplied exponentially. Here’s the first movement:
Interestingly, there is more tenderness in the Andante con moto than in Owen's performance, despite near-identical timigs (the Munich players are more expansive in the first movement but quicker in the finale):
Listening, again, to the contraputal web that one rarely appreciates towards the end of the movement is joy itself. The really interesting “change” is the finale, though, which emerges as jaunty as you like:
Terrific. Johannes Dengler is the intrepid solo hornist, and is ansolutely superb throughout. The piece is especially relevant, as Richard Strauss' father, Franz Strauss, was solo horn in the Munich Court Orchestra.
Next, some fun. No, really. Three Trios for three natural horns by Antonín Reijcha (or Anton Reicha, if you prefer, 1770-1836). They are light pieces, yet reflect Reicha's amazing imagination (Iván Ilić jhas done much good work for Reicha’s piano music on Chandos, incidentallly - Reicha really is a composer we need to know better). And these performances are wonderful. Listen to the nimble bass of Op. 82/20:
Up until now, my reference point for thse works was a classic Supraphon LP of Zdeněk Tylšar, Bedrich Tylšar and Zdeněk Divoký (I suspect the YouTube photo is taken from the CD as my LP, whcih I owned in the early 1980's, had a different cover):
The Munich performance definitely has more life. It seems also that the further East one goes in Europe, the creamier the horn sound: the Munich horns definitely are rounder in sound than their English counterparts, and the Czech players take that one step further.
The “Musette,” Op. 82/2, is a delight. don't forget, too, that he Munich players are playing on natural horns, the Czech players on modern compensating, valved instruments.
.. again, the Czech players are a little more stately:
The final Reicha piece is a Lento that leads to an Allegro spiritoso. This one is the only one I prefer the Supraphon performance, which has just a touch more life to it; having said that, the natural horn element does give a whole new character to the main theme of the Allegro, with its stoppings:
The new piece, written for the present ensemble, is Voyager 2, Op. 97, by the Munich-based Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi (born 1962). This is for horn octet (eight horns). She finished the piece exactly 40 years to the day after the space probe Voyager 2 was launched. The probe incudes in its data a performance of the Queen of the Night's Vengeance Aria (“Die hölle Rache”) sung by Edda Moser and conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The piece is predicated upon questions (and indeed there is a question-answer section within the horns); at one pont, the hornists are asked to speak notated (yet unintelligible) syllables into ttheir instruments, creating a multi-horn beat-box. Later, too, breath sounds become part of the soundscape:
No surprise to hear a Waldlied (Forest Song) here, given the horn’s links to the forest and honting. This piece is by Oscar Franz (1843-1886) and speaks of the deep psychological symbolism of the forest as a metaphor for our subconscious and our dreams, as well as operating on a deeply Romantic level (with a capital “R”!):
It is Pascal Deuber again who does the honours for the second Richard Strauss transcription on the disc: this time, a fantasy on the opera Daphne (Daphne-Fantasie). As well as being deeply impressiveon a technical level (whether that be the act of transcription itself, or the performance here), this acts as a pointer towards the opera itself, rarely-heard live, and unaccountably so. Here we do get a sense of Strauss' heroism in music - as well as the most remarkable section suffused with trillls about half way through!:
A decidedly crepuscular Pavane from Milhaud pupil Pierre-Max Dubois' Quotuor pour Cors ends the main body of the programme. You can perhaps hear something of his teacher in the harmonies:
Finally, back to the Alphorns and Abendruhe (Evening Peace) by Urs Verlinger (born 1964), where horn calls echo out serenely, balancing the opening piece by Sommer. The music does open out nicely to something more rhytmically buoyant:
Two superb discs. I wouldn't want to be without either.