In my forty five years of listening to music seriously there have been some notable and unforgettable milestones. These include the first hearings of such masterworks as Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, Dvorak's Carnival Overture, Hunmphrey Searle's The Riverrun ( and, indeed, all else that he wrote) Irving Fine's The Hour Glass, the music of Webern and now, Andrew Downes's Concerto for four horns and orchestra Op.77, a truly staggering piece.
I heard the premiere in Prague . The Concerto was written for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and dates from the year 2002.
The premiere with that orchestra under Vladimir Valek was nothing short of sensational . I have not heard horn playing of this excellence ever before and I suggest neither have you.
The work is in three movements linked by a clever use of material. It is scored for four very brave horn players, piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons , double bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. It lasts about 23 minutes.
This is both a real concerto and a true symphonic work.
The first movement is marked Allegro vivace and starts with an ostinato figure on violas and lower strings. This ostinato figure proceeds to the lower woodwind with brief brass melodic lines which melodic fragments are shared by the high woodwind. The soloists enter in a expansive, almost secondary role, and here the composer's usual wisdom is employed. He does not introduce his soloists with a bang or a display. All is in control. The music is broader accentuating minims as opposed to quavers and semiquavers as in the opening ostinato figure. But for all this the music does not lose interest. The first emphatic statement is not given to the soloists ( another clever move by this inspirational composer) but the soloists enter with the ostinato idea fortissimo and there is a fascinating interplay between the soloists and the orchestra. The climax is short lived and after five bars of broader music the timpani takes up the ostinato figures of rising minor thirds and major seconds. The horn parts are smooth over a more violate orchestra but it makes for an excellent contrast. At bar 218 the soloists, having established their presence, begin to enter into a display but I must say it is not crude like brass band virtuosity. This is still real music.
Andrew has among his many gifts a wonderful sense of orchestration and texture. In the loud passage for sustained strings ,bar 236 onwards, he has spread the instruments perfectly to get the required effect but then he shows us immediately how to acquire gorgeous hushed sounds from woodwind, horns and strings. The music picks up excitement again and Andrew wisely avoids overkill. There is nothing pompous, thick or turgid in his orchestration and his clarity I have noted in other works of his, notably the splendid second and third symphonies. The limited use of the timpani with unleashed power is another wise employment. The ostinato figure returns but its use is so reserved that it never becomes tedious. The very quiet passage for high strings at bar 332 is glorious and sets the calm before a brief and exciting climax with a wonderful ambiguity of tonality.
The second movement is headed Adagio e molto expressivo and is introduced by a curious theme on cellos and basses. Curious , since it is broad and stately but not stuffy. It has a march like quality and speaks of the need of the music to keep moving. It shows how good horn horn players can play legato and acquire soft top notes. There are so many little things that the composer does which make for a continuity. The Cinderella of the orchestra, the viola , has a say, three recurring crotchets as a triplet, the thirds in the flutes and the sixths in the oboes and clarinets and the way that simple devices generate alternatively a glowing beauty and then a tremendous excitement. The triplets figures in contrary motion on the horns ( bar 40 onwards) above strings in alternating fifths and sixths makes a wonderful sound. There are some strong timpani entries and the orchestral brass have some great moments particularly bar 44 onwards. There is so much to admire here. And still Andrew has not introduced any vulgar writing from either soloists and orchestra. He does not make a long slow movement to pad the music out as do lesser composers. The first movement takes about eight minutes and the second only five.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Andrew's music is that although it is not complicated it is never banal. I know no other modern composer who can write music that adheres to simple but effective design with such telling results.
The finale is one of those rare pieces that is genuinely very exciting and, indeed, spell-binding. While it may be called a tour de force it is still music for music's sake.
It begins with another ostinato figure which is the reverse of the opening movement and the horn writing is stunning.
And yet, note well, Andrew does not use any horn cliches... no open air hunting horn sounds, no fanfare figures, no ghastly Edwardian pageantry but just music which is strong even in the delightful quiet passages.... but there is also that infectious swagger. The powerful dramatic high horn sequence which first appears at bar 34 is nothing short of stupendous and throughout the piece Andrew has impeccable orchestration . To quote but many many strokes of genius the high flutes about the horns in full flight adds a marvellous crystal clear scintillation. There is a rhythmic drive and exuberant energy and , again, little touches of sheer class such as two notes on the glockinspiel with high violin writing, bar 174 for example. The final pages are ecstatic and thrilling and overwhelmingly exciting.
It makes Schumann's Konzertstuck for four horns and orchestra, good though it is, a kindergarten piece.
However, it must be said that this premiere performance was so outstanding that to get another performance to match it may be very difficult!
Copyright David C F Wright
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