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Sovereign Horn Territory

Music for horn
and orchestra -
recommended by

'... stunning breath control and consummate understanding ...'

Rhapsodie, Fantasie: Poème. © 2008 Melba Recordings

From Melba Recordings, in close succession, we've had two enterprising horn CDs; the present concert with orchestra from highly experienced soloist, Tasmanian-born, Ben Jacks and Encore my Good Sir, a recital with piano featuring Shanghai-born horn soloist Lin Jiang.

Both discs have input from veteran Australian horn player Barry Tuckwell, principal with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1955 until 1968 and international soloist from 1968 until 1997. Tuckwell conducts the two orchestras with Jacks, and as Jiang's teacher at Melbourne University he provides unspecified assistance.

Both discs include rarely programmed and seldom heard music, though Jiang's recital with pianist Benjamin Martin focuses on familiar names -- Schumann, Poulenc, Hindemith, Bach, Marais and Peter Maxwell Davies.

Having said that I had no intention of embarking on a comparative review; when writing about the recital I simply concluded -- 'Lin Jiang is unquestionably a jewel in the crown of OZ concert music. At twenty-two he is already regarded as one of most exciting horn soloists of his generation ... and Encore my Good Sir proves a fascinating, uniquely diverse recital; happily brought to us with Melba Recordings' customary artistic and technical flair.'

Jacks introduces world-première recordings of two works by sadly neglected French pianist, conductor and traditionalist tonal composer Jean-Michel Damase, age 81. A student of Alfred Cortot and Marcel Dupré, Damase follows in a 'reduced-weight' slipstream of Debussy and Ravel without their deeper implications. His music is accessible, melodic, prone to 'obsessive' motifs, often rhythmically surprising and always faultlessly crafted. In the composer's own words, 'I prefer sincerity to forced innovation'.

The two Damase works featured here are Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestre (1987) and Concerto pour cor et orchestre (1995). Three other French works are from Koechlin, Dukas and Saint-Saëns and to conclude, Jacks includes Phantasy for horn and orchestra (1905) by London-born G W L Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), a key figure in Melbourne musical life from 1891.

Listen -- Damase: Moderato (Concerto)
(track 1, 0:00-0:59) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Damase's concerto opens with an abrupt, jaunty moderato resolving toward a gently lyrical conclusion. A brief allegro scherzando follows with more chirpy woodwind thrown into the melting pot. The andante is suitably melodic though hardly memorable while the final allegro vivace meanders forward on tidal cross currents.

The concerto was premièred by Michel Garçin-Marrou. Well known as an educator, he is Professor of Horn at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Lyon and Professor of Natural Horn with the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris. Garçin-Marrou also serves as President of the Association Française du Cor and Vice-president of the International Horn Society.

Eclectic Parisian, Charles Koechlin's Poème pour cor et orchestre was premièred by Edouard Vuillermoz (1869-1936) in 1927. It started life as a sonata (1918-25) while the orchestrated version was intended to be played obbligato by the principal horn.

The orchestrated opening movement (Horn Sonata Op 70 1) Moderato, très simplement et avec souplesse awakens in mellow, woodland-sounding mode amidst a cushion of winds until the pace quickens (2'40") giving way to a robust canter. A central Andante reveals Jacks' unblemished lyrical, glowing style after which Koechlin's assez animé cependant is an equation of propulsive heraldic flourishes countered by the sylvan glow with which his work began.

Listen -- Koechlin: assez animé cependant (Poème)
(track 7, 2:14-3:22) © 2008 Melba Recordings

In 1903 François Bremond (1844-1925), at that time horn professor with Paris Conservatoire, sought established composers to write test pieces for the conservatoire's annual competition. Dukas' brilliantly virtuosic Villanelle, written for horn and piano, taxed contestants to the uttermost. It was later orchestrated by Dukas himself though he eventually destroyed the orchestral score. Villanelle was re-scored for the present recording by arranger-conductor Paul Terracini, best known for his Christian music CDs with the Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras of Prague.

Jacks' dazzling account has an impressively high adrenalin quotient; a far cry from the impressionnisme/romantique of Damase and Koechlin.

Listen -- Dukas: Villanelle
(track 9, 0:00-1:00) © 2008 Melba Recordings

The Damase Rhapsodie of 1987 was commissioned by Barry Humphries, AO, CBE, Australia's renowned satirist and comic character actor; also a Melba Recordings' artistic benefactor. Humphries had requested a work evoking the ocean and shoreline; specifically for performance by Tuckwell.

Tuckwell's protégé, Jacks, presents it with stunning breath control and consummate understanding of the work's overriding atmospheric demands.

The Saint-Saëns item was composed for Henri Chaussier (1853/54-?). With his Morceau de Concert (1887) Saint-Saëns is believed to have had the omnitonic horn in mind; the development was initially constructed (1815) by J-B Dupont of Paris, enabling the horn to be tuned into every key without the use of separate crooks. Its most useful form; the Tonwechselmaschine (transposing valve) was patented by Czech instrument maker Václav Frantisek Cerveny in 1846.

Note that in 1814, the earliest documentation of a horn with valves appeared in a letter from Heinrich Stölzel to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. This horn had two tubular piston valves.

A dispute over who first thought of valves involved Friedrich Blühmel and Stölzel. Blühmel claimed he had the idea as early as 1811-1812. However, his invention was actually a box valve. The wrangle ended with a joint Prussian patent in 1818 for a box valve. But Stölzel eventually paid off his competitor and enjoyed the rights of the patent himself.

Saint-Saëns' compositional mastery shouts out from the opening bars of his 8+ minute gem. Though it begins with a bold, bright theme and variations; the piece also has such subtleties as a variation within the opening theme (0'43"). The two self-contained variations (1'37" and 2'46") lead to a magically fashioned lyrical-dreamlike central episode (4'05"-6'45"). With an orchestral 'a tempo' nod in the direction of the opening theme Saint-Saëns launches into a brilliant coda, concluding in a energetic vivace flourish; all of which Jacks conveys with apparent effortlessness.

Throughout this piece one cannot help but note outstanding responsiveness by the Queensland Orchestra, yet another witness to Australia's top notch instrumental/ensemble training.

G W L Marshall-Hall's Phantasy for horn and orchestra (1905) betrays no iota of Marshall-Hall's British origins nor of his adopted Australian home and workplace in Melbourne (1891-1915). More than anything else its echoes are unmistakably Brahmsian with the resulting 10+ minute phantasy an essay in autumnal colour and Germanic scoring.

Listen -- Marshall-Hall: Phantasy
(track 11, 8:35-10:05) © 2008 Melba Recordings

This is sovereign horn territory and proves a glorious end-piece for Melba Recordings' typically triumphant concert, recorded with perfectly-judged resonance in Melbourne's compact Iwaki Auditorium; a concert venue named after Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's conductor laureate, maestro Hiroyuki Iwaki (1932-2006).

Copyright © 11 March 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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