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The Art of the Vienna Horn
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Horn Sonata in F major, Op 17
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Auf dem Strom, D943, Op posth 119
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)

Adagio and Allegro in A flat major, Op 70
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)

Trio in E flat major, for piano, violin and horn, Op 40
Wolfgang Tomboeck (horn), Madoka Inui (piano), Genia Kühmeier (soprano - Schubert only), Johannes Tomboeck (violin - Brahms only)
recorded at Studio 3 of the ORF Funkhaus Vienna, 10-14 November and 4/10 December 2003
NAXOS 8.557471 [60'48"]


The Vienna Horn is so called because of its widespread use, even today, in Vienna. But in fact it’s not at all uncommon elsewhere: even Yamaha make them, distributing them worldwide. And many players - but only confident professionals! - and orchestras insist on them for the core Romantic repertory. It differs from what has become the standard horn (the so-called double horn) by having a single length of tubing, giving the harmonic series of F: the double horn allows the player to switch in, by means of a fourth valve, a shorter length of tubing in B flat enabling much more secure delivery of high-lying notes. The high price double-horn players pay, a Vienna horn player will tell you, is the tone quality of the smaller ‘half’ of the instrument - like going from grand to upright? Because the notes of the B flat harmonic series are further apart, there is a loss in its singing range of the characteristic lip-controlled legato.

‘The Art of the Vienna Horn’ makes for an interesting title: but of course the music chosen for this recital was, with the obvious exception of the Schumann piece, written for a very different and even simpler instrument, with no valves. Even the Brahms, dating as it does from 1865, some half a century after the chromatic horn was invented, was written for the old hand horn, in which notes outside the harmonic series had to be induced by crude hand-stopping and lip adjustment! So the significance of the use of a Vienna Horn in this repertory might, unless you’re a horn player, that is, be considered incidental, even irrelevant.

Be all that as it may, this is an excellent disc. The programme gathers together the four most significant chamber works written for the horn during the fifty-or-so key years of its technical development. As such, it’s an irresistible collection, and will surely be attractive to non-playing, as much as horn-playing, would-be purchasers. The Beethoven’s an early but delightful piece. The Schubert dates from that annus mirabilis, 1828, the year of the last Quartets, Sonatas and - even more significantly - Winterreise. The Schumann is utterly gorgeous: no other word suffices, and its ‘neglect’ can only be explained by the demands it makes on the player. Of the four pieces, the Brahms - being staple repertory diet - needs no introduction from me.

Wolfgang Tomboeck is a superb player, he plays in the Vienna Philharmonic, so no surprises here, commanding an impressively rounded and full-bodied tone, with a positively liquid legato. Everything, yes even the chord at the end of the Schubert, is perfectly in tune. Horn playing simply doesn’t get better than this! His security in the extremities of the instrument’s range can only be wondered at. Listen to the punchy bottom F in the opening phrase of the Beethoven - perfectly focused - or the way he soars effortlessly up to the high F (three octaves higher!) in Schumann’s Adagio.

His colleagues are supportive. The pianist, Madoka Inui, is a well-rounded musician - an unobtrusive accompanist who follows rather than leads. Genia Kühmeier, the soprano in the Schubert, has a pleasant voice, with clear diction: but her comparatively narrow tonal range and unsteady trills sound immature in this company. You may feel the same of Tomboeck’s son, Johannes, who possesses a rather glassy tone, and cannot match the vocal authority of Perlman in his classic recording of the Brahms with Ashkenazy and Tuckwell. But this piece does not require, you may even say it does not benefit, from big personalities at the helm.

There’s an interesting competitor in this repertory and price range in Andrew Clark’s EMI Debut disc (7243 5 72822 2 2), which includes both Beethoven and Brahms pieces. But Clark uses a hand-horn, and his pianist, Geoffrey Govier, uses a ‘period’ piano, including an 1871 Bösendorfer in the Brahms. A fascinating comparison, then, but perhaps not a rival?

Tomboeck writes an interesting essay for the liner, including substantial notes on the Vienna Horn, its history, its repertory - and its justification! Unfortunately, the words of the Schubert aren’t included.

Peter J Lawson

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