JENNIFER PAULL pays tribute to
french horn player Ifor James (1931-2004)
It was with much sadness that I learned recently of the demise of Ifor James. I had known him for many years and played alongside him in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the English Chamber and a peppering of other orchestras and ensembles over the years.
I think every musician's life is a canvas of special musical moments, which somehow become the individually distilled essence of one's career. I know that Ifor's playing was a personal revelation and part of my own life-canvas.
Before going on to the Royal College of Music in London, I spent a year at the Liverpool Matthey School of Music. I used to attend every possible rehearsal and concert of the RLPO.
It was around this time I heard Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for the first time with Ifor and Gerald English, conducted by Mr John Pritchard, as he then was.
There was a superb fluidity in both Gerard English's slightly nasal and almost oboistic voice that blended to perfection with Ifor's seemingly effortless horn playing. The two mixed together into one colour -- just like yellow and blue become green. The natural horn harmonics were like electric shocks, so pure, yet so piercingly gut-wrenching. My own interpretation was influenced from that very moment. I use harmonics for effect, colour and
poignancy as well as their ethereal tone texture.
In the oboe world, this is still somewhat unusual, even frowned upon in some
schools of playing. In the oboe d'amore 'sub'-continent, it was unheard of. I
can pinpoint my own recognition of their importance and possibilities to this
one performance, just as I can my removal of the 'sub' to one, subsequent
B Minor Mass.
Ifor said of himself, 'I play the horn because I can't sing. If I could sing, I would not play the horn'. I learned over the years that the only way to go about playing a wind instrument is to consider it as one's own singing voice. I know that's exactly what Ifor did, even if he did say those words with a chuckle.
This remains one of the most magical moments in my formative years. At that London performance of Bach's B Minor Mass, the same magnetic amalgam of fluidity mingled with edged mellowness hit me again as a combined colour and I discovered it was called an oboe d'amore. I followed the colour and after that moment, there was to be no leaving it for another. It lay for me, somewhere between the voice and horn of that special performance of Britten's Serenade -- rather than the oboe and the cor anglais, its immediate oboistic neighbours. For me, it went without saying that harmonics were part of its vocal chords.
Of course I watched Ifor play the rondo of a Mozart concerto on a brightly coloured garden hose in the April Fools Concerts in which we both took part from within Fritz Spiegl's Merseyside Wind Ensemble. Here was yet another great character of the Liverpool scene. Pranksters, the pair! Humour was never very far away and some of Ifor's tricks got him into hot water. I remember a story of a split kilt with a pair of boxer shorts underneath ... but not a shared sense of humour amongst the viewers of his joke when he took his bow to both sides of the audience -- orchestra and choir.
It didn't really matter what Ifor played, it was the way it all appeared to be effortless, without a seam. The singing of his soul cast that spell and it was as musically pure and true as the man could be a clown and a comedian.
Although I have listened repeatedly to both Peter Pears' wonderful recordings with the superb horn playing of Dennis Brain and Barry Tuckwell alongside the evergreen master, they have never moved me as much as this one live concert in the early 1960s. The very blend of the timbres of Gerald English's voice and Ifor James' horn opened up a new colour to me and I translated that colour blend into my own instrumental pathway.
I did see Ifor relatively recently. I live not so very far away from Freiburg-am-Bresnau, which became his home in Germany. He was a very spiritual man, and visited a spiritual guide in Lausanne, which is quite close to my family home in Switzerland.
My last memory will forever be of laughing at his mimickery of the Sirs John -- Barbirolli and Prichard, whom he could imitate until one clutched one's sides. His anecdotes, sense of humour and enjoyment of music and matters musical will be sadly missed by all of us whose lives he touched. The worlds of music, horn playing and pedagogy, have lost a blazing comet.
Born in Carlisle or not, there was much of the Welshman about you, Ifor, as you slipped into the musical accent as often as you could! You were always imitating another's turn of phrase or regional and national difference. As you moved to live in Europe, your repertoire of accents grew too. In music, your style was uniquely your own, and many are the students who sought to follow in your footsteps.
Diolch yn fawr iawn!