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The Art of the Vienna Horn
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
(1770-1827)
Horn Sonata in F major, Op 17 (1800)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Auf dem Strom, D943
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); Johannes Tomboeck, violin (Brahms)
Recorded at Studio 3 of the ORF Funkhaus Vienna, November and December 2003
NAXOS 8.557471 [60'48"]

 

This disc is entitled The Art of the Vienna Horn and for those collectors unfamiliar with the history of brass instruments a detailed note by the soloist explains exactly what the Vienna horn is. Briefly outlined, most horn players in orchestras throughout the world now play on an instrument which is referred to as the double horn, pitched both in F and B flat, with the possibility of switching between the two. The horn is a fiendishly difficult instrument to play from a technical point of view. The player's hopes that the instrument will oblige with the right notes are all too often confounded, and intonation problems and split notes are a constant danger. The main advantage of the double horn from the player's point of view is a slight relief from all this, but there is a price to pay, in that the tone of the double horn is less mellow, less round than that of the Vienna horn. This varies from player to player, however, and personally I wouldn't care to engage a professional advocate of the double horn on the subject. Nonetheless, the reasoning is that this characteristic tone colour is at the heart of the retention of the Vienna horn – or horn in F – by players in Vienna, and even a revival of its use for certain repertoire, notably German and Romantic, by players in other orchestras too.

Wolfgang Tomboeck is first horn in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as was his father before him. This fact alone will lead us to expect a certain standard and we are not disappointed. From every point of view this is horn playing of the very first rank. The virtuosity is breathtaking, intonation impeccable and his tone is so round, rich and beautiful that the question of which instrument he is using becomes irrelevant as we surrender quite simply to the pleasure of listening.

The programme is a fascinating one. The disc opens with Beethoven's Horn Sonata, Op. 17, first performed in 1800 and therefore roughly contemporary with the first symphony. I had never heard it before playing this disc and it really is a superb work. From the arresting opening to the dazzling virtuosity of the finale – written for the natural horn! – the listener is almost bombarded by one engaging musical idea after another. The slow movement lasts less than a minute and a half, but the hypnotic dotted rhythms contribute to an intensively expressive atmosphere. The quality of Tomboeck's playing is established immediately and so consummate an artist is he that the list of attributes seems endless. To those already cited must be added a mastery of line in legato passages, but without forgetting – and this is particularly refreshing – that the horn is a brass instrument.

Long, legato lines are again in evidence in Schubert's late song Auf dem Strom. The horn part is conceived as a counterpoint to the voice and the two are supported by keyboard figuration representing water. I hadn't encountered Genia Kühmeier before, but she excellently conjures up and maintains the song's atmosphere, at once melancholy and serene. Further recordings of lieder from her will be welcome, and she is admirably supported by her colleagues. This is a wonderful song, and the accompanying notes are so informative and well-written that the absence of either text or translation seems all the more regrettable.

[Editor’s Note: Although certainly not a convenient substitute for the reproduction of words in the leaflet the text and various translations can be found at http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=13381]

The Schumann, composed in 1849 to exploit the possibilities of the then new valve horn, is another immediately enjoyable work. More gorgeous, creamy horn tone is to be heard again at the outset and the virtuosity of the Allegro is brilliantly conceived for the new instrument and equally brilliantly dispatched by Tomboeck.

Brahms' Trio Op. 40 is of course well known and available in a number of other readings, usually coupled with other chamber works from the same composer. And what a wonderful work it is! Psychologically complex, the composer mourns the loss of his mother with a certain wildness rarely associated with him, whilst not neglecting the hunting features properly belonging to the instrument. It is here that Madoka Inui comes into her own, coping expertly with the considerable demands of the piano part and not failing to impose her own personality on the music when necessary. Father and son are admirably at one, but there are times when Johannes Tomboeck's playing can seem a little pale, particularly in direct comparison with some of the outsize personalities who feature on rival issues. But as is often the case direct comparison is unhelpful here, when the performance is so successful in its own right and when the recital as a whole is so obviously enjoyable and totally recommendable.

William Hedley



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