The horn: “In its simplest form . . . a slender, gradually tapered tube . . . coiled in one, two or three circles and expanding into a widely flared bell. It is played with a relatively small, funnel-shaped mouthpiece that produces a softer and more mellow tone than the . . . trumpet.” (New Grove Dictionary, 1980)
Although there’s nothing essentially French about it, it’s often called the French horn. Today we distinguish between the “natural” horn, which matches the description above and was long associated with the aristocratic world of the hunt, and the modern or valved horn, which comes with three to six valves that enable or greatly simplify the task of playing a chromatic scale throughout the instrument’s range. Professional orchestras usually keep at least four horn players on salary; modern orchestral works may call for as many as eight. Horn players are the highest-paid musicians in Los Angeles, largely because they are in constant demand on Hollywood scoring stages. To film audiences, the sound of the horn conveys heroic qualities: “strength, courage, seriousness, stability, and control,” to borrow Pip Eastop’s apt phrase (see below).
It was not always so. When the horn was first introduced to serious music ensembles, its limitations and technical quirks made it one frisky critter—in Eastop’s words, “altogether rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful and idiosyncratic.” We get some sense of its cultural identity from the way J. S. Bach uses it in the first of his Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046, F major):
The horns enter with sounds linked directly to the hunt: crisp rhythmic tattoos and exuberant, whooping calls that evoke the excitement of a chase on horseback through open countryside. Only after their heritage has been established are the horns allowed to share the melodic material brought in by the other instruments. They sit out the following Adagio, apparently unfit to utter more tender expressions. There is also a practical reason for their silence: having exerted themselves strenuously in the opening movement, they will face equally demanding chores in the Allegro and Minuet yet to come; they need time in which to recover their embouchures. Here’s a taste (favorite horn player’s expression!) of the Minuet:
Undoubtedly Bach had hunting in mind when he wrote these parts. Substantial portions of the concerto appear to have originated as an opening Sinfonia for Cantata BWV 208, “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd,” the “Hunting” Cantata, composed in 1713 for festivities celebrating the birthday of that notorious hunter Prince Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. We’ve been listening to excerpts from a very fine new recording of the Brandenburgs from Florilegium (dir. Ashley Solomon; Channel Classics CCS SA 35914). These are stylish performances, extremely well-recorded by Jared Sacks in the lively acoustic of London’s St. John the Evangelist Church. The sterling horn work in BWV 1046 comes courtesy of Gavin Edwards and David Bentley, both playing instruments by Anthony Halstead and John Webb “after Leich[nam]schneider.”
I enjoyed the other performances on this two-disc set also, but in sequencing the album in reverse order of Bach’s own presentation preference, I think Mr. Solomon may have erred (Bach begins, of course,with No. 1, which calls for the biggest instrumental complement). If you purchase the recording, do yourself a favor and kick-start your listening experience with concerto No. 3, proceeding to No. 2 and then No. 1—you’ll get the best of the set and avoid the slightly pallid initial impression that the first disc makes.
However, you may also wish for some Baroque horn music that’s rougher and wilder than BWV 1046. For you there’s Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745), a contemporary of Bach, Telemann, and Handel who is only now getting the attention his music merits. His church music surfaced first, but lately it’s the instrumental works that have been making more noise.
I first encountered Zelenka’s instrumental music through a marvelous recording from Ensemble Marsyas, Zelenka Sonatas (Linn CKD 415; 2012). So when I received a review copy of Zelenka: The Capriccios from Sono Luminus (DSL-92163, Blu-ray Audio & CD) last year, my heart soared. I looked forward to hearing more of the quirky, engaging music that so enlivened Ensemble Marsyas’ offering.
Then I listened to the recording, and my heart sank. Zelenka’s Capriccios, like most of his extant instrumental works, are products of his youth. As a journeyman musician—he played bass in the orchestra of the Prince Elector of Saxony—he was simultaneously learning his craft and seeking every opportunity to practice it. While in Vienna in 1717–18, he composed four of the five Capriccios as music for the lavish entertainments that followed the Prince Elector’s par force hunts. Elector Friedrich August was in Vienna to negotiate marriage to Habsburg princess Maria Josepha, but while bargaining sessions dragged on he managed to work in some hunting, a sport for which (unlike courtship) he showed considerable passion.
Needless to say, the corno da caccia or hunting horn featured prominently in Zelenka’s music for his Prince. The composer was a native of Bohemia, which led the way in horn playing in those days. We know that Tobias Butz and Johannes Josef Götzel the Elder, “two exceptional Bohemian horn players,” traveled with Friedrich August to Vienna in 1717 as part of his retinue. We know this from Daniel Abraham’s superb liner notes for the Sono Luminus recording. Mr. Abraham is both conductor of the Washington-based Bach Sinfonia and a musicologist who has prepared new critical editions of the Capriccios. Here’s what else we learn: the natural-horn technique known as “hand-stopping,” which involves placing one’s right hand into the bell of the instrument in various ways, providing more security and facility in getting the notes to speak, was not yet widely employed in 1717. Aside from sounding traditional fanfares in the lower register, horn players were expected to produce “rhythmically short, stepwise melodic gestures in the upper register” by means of their agile lips alone. What we don’t know is how well they succeeded.
Mr. Abraham’s new recording is the first to present these works played with bell-upright, open horns. Look Ma, no hands! Let us now praise, in principle, Mr. Abraham and more so his brave horn players, R. J. Kelley and Alexandra Cook. Listen:
Perhaps you will find those unruly sounds exciting. This may very well be a matter of individual tastes. Considering just how difficult such passages are, Kelley and Cook cope pretty well. The trouble is, few of us really want to hear someone coping. We can’t fully relax and enjoy the music. Yes, it's "rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful," etc. etc. But for me it didn't wear very well. Long before I had heard all five Capriccios, I was squirming. The horn players’ insecurity, their constant fight with almost-but-not-quite, does not seem to have radiated outward to the other instrumentalists, though. The Bach Sinfonia plays with its customary spirit. The spacious recording captures many details of these often complex scores too, although I did not care for the surround mix.
For relief I turned to some recordings made in the late 1990s but now available in a budget-priced set, Jan Dismas Zelenka: Complete Orchestral Works (cpo 999 897-2; 2001). Its three discs include all the Capriccios but also some Simphoniae, a Hipocondrie à 7 and a similar Ouverture. The sheer variety of the music is welcome in itself. In the Capriccios, horn players Teunis van de Zwart (about whom more next month) and Raphael Vosseler negotiate the tough spots with considerably more panache. Their secret? Hand-stopping, plus a degree of caution, plus general good musicianship. Listen:
I'm not sure you can imagine how satisfying this set is by hearing the single example above. You have to sit through several selections. Throughout the set, conductor Jürgen Sonnentheil’s prudently chosen tempos aid the players, as does careful engineering that never spotlights the horns but rather places them appropriately within the ensemble—which happens to be the very capable Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre. Let’s hear them in one of Zelenka’s best moments, the opening movement of the Capriccio in F Major, ZWV 184:
And so, on to Mozart! By the time he walked the earth (1756–1791), horn players had long since adopted hand-stopping. As a consequence, their technical and expressive range had expanded considerably. Of one Joseph Leutgeb (or Leitgeb), Mozart’s friend since his Salzburg days, it was written that he could “sing an adagio as perfectly as the most mellow, interesting, and accurate voice.” (Mercure de France, May 1770) This description can be linked directly to hand-stopping, which enriched the timbre of the instrument by adding another octave’s worth of “formant partials” (i.e., overtones or harmonics), changing our perceptions of horn sound forever.
As the most celebrated horn player in Vienna and a soloist in other European capitals, Leutgeb did not hesitate to ask Mozart for a concerto or two. After all, Michael Haydn, Leopold Hofmann and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf among others had already written works for him. Once Mozart made it to Vienna, he was happy to comply: the first of the Leutgeb horn concertos, K. 417, bears this dedication:
Wolfgang Amadé Mozart has taken pity on Leitgeb, ass, ox, and fool, in Vienna on 27th May 1783.
A fragment of another concerto from 1785 survives (K. 494a), but it was never completed. In 1786 Mozart wrote out—in four different ink colors—a second full three-movement concerto (K. 495) for Leutgeb that includes the most famous “hunting finale” in the horn literature.
In 1787 a third concerto (K. 447) followed, like the first two in E flat but now with clarinets and bassoons rather than oboes and horns in the orchestral complement. It’s also harmonically more searching, which befits a work created around the same time as the great C-minor Piano Concerto and Don Giovanni. Here is a bit of the central Romance:
We’ve been listening to recent releases from two of the leading natural-horn players of our day. Roger Montgomery has recorded the complete horn concertos—as we’ll see, they’re slightly more complete than any other set—with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for Signum Classics (SIGCD 345; 2013). And now here comes Pip Eastop, partnered with The Hanover Band (dir. Anthony Halstead) and the Eroica Quartet, to bring us the four completed concertos plus the Horn Quintet, K. 407 (386c) on Hyperion (CDA68097; 2015).
Which one’s better? I’m not sure. In any case it’s more enjoyable to compare how these two phenomenal performers approach the issues that come with playing natural horn. Eastop chooses the bolder approach, I think—he doesn’t shrink from the inevitable contrasts of color and dynamics that arise when you’ve got to get from one end of the instrument’s compass to the other, or when you’re forced to tease out a chromatic inflection that doesn’t “naturally” occur without help from Mr. Hand:
On the other hand, by minimizing individual squinks and squonks as they come along, Montgomery more often manages a musicianly cantabile. His consistency is all the more astonishing when you consider that the entire album was recorded at one live performance in London, 25 October 2012. One night’s work! Eastop had the luxury of four days in October 2013 just for the four concertos; he laid down the Quintet two years earlier.
The orchestras are equally well-matched. Once in a while I sense that the OAE have brought out a couple of Mozart’s flourishes with more flair, but then I’ll find a tempo that the Hanover Band has caught better. Both soloists are nicely present—you can “taste” their attacks and savor their dynamic shadings with ease. Hyperion’s recording team may have the edge but only because of the vagaries faced by OAE’s engineers in capturing a live concert. With musicologist Stephen Roberts’ help, Montgomery & Co. have included some new fragments and reconstructions that Mozart completists won’t want to miss. But Eastop has also worked with Roberts to restore some of the original Mozart passages to K. 412 (386b), which Leutgeb and Süssmayr (yes, that Süssmayr) had altered. We’re talking about the horn part that Mozart inscribed, before his untimely death, with various insults for his old friend: “Take a break!” or “At least get one note in tune, ****head!” And: “Here comes the tune for the fourth and, God willing, last time.” Over the final trill: “Ah, a billy-goat impression!” (By the way, thanks to Stephen Roberts for OAE and Richard Payne of Hyperion for their excellent liner notes, which include those taunts and much more.)
Neither of these fellows is going to replace Dennis Brain in the hearts of record collectors. Brain recorded the classic collection of these works in 1953, for EMI, in mono. He played a modern valved instrument and was accompanied by a certain German conductor who did a nice job in spite of his Romantic inclinations. They had a way with this music that hasn’t been equaled since. Yet Montgomery and Eastop also have a way with it. And their way probably sounds more like what Mozart heard from his old buddy Leutgeb. Whether or not you think that’s important, I think you’ll find much to enjoy in either of these recordings.
Here’s the spot where I ask readers to submit their own nomination for Best Mozart Horn Concerto Collection Other Than Brain’s. Only recordings made with valved horns are eligible, and the recording should still be available. In your nomination, please describe both the quality of the performance and of the recording. YouTube links are helpful but not required. Who would you nominate?
While you’re thinking, let’s sample another good horn recording, from the principal of the Concertgebouw. Jasper de Waal: Haydn (Channel Classics CCS SA 30210; 2010) doesn’t avoid Mozart entirely: de Waal includes Michael Haydn’s Romance for Horn and String Quartet. Its horn part uses the central movement of K. 447 in simplified form. Presumably Leutgeb showed up in Salzburg in 1795 and wanted to play some chamber music. He knew the solo part of K. 447 by heart but not the accompaniment, so Michael created a new one. Since we've already excerpted the Romance, here is some of Joseph Haydn’s Concerto for Horn No. 1 in de Waal’s (valved) rendition:
The collection also features another "Haydn" concerto (probably spurious) and two movements from Michael’s Serenade in D Major for Horn and Trombone. Concertgebouw principal Jörgen van Rijen joins with de Waal for that one. It’s charming stuff. The Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra accompanies, aided and abetted by Jared Sacks’ usual wizardry.
Next month: Horns Part 2, with music by Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Britten, and more.
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