Saint Hubertus or Hubert (c.656/8-727), Bishop of Maastricht and later of Liège, is the patron saint of hunters. According to legend, as a dissolute young man he spent all his time hunting until, one day, he saw a miraculous vision of a hart with the crucified Christ in its horns. It’s a good story, but it probably ranks with the story of King Alfred burning the cakes, since it didn’t appear until the fifteenth century and belongs originally to the legend of St Eustace; the story about King Alfred is an even later addition to Asser’s Life
. A painting of Hubert falling on his knees before the vision, dating from the late fifteenth century, figures on one of the shutters of the Werden Altarpiece in the National Gallery in London and a similar painting, of unacknowledged provenance, features on the CD cover.
The practice of celebrating masses in honour of St Hubert outdoors, without singers but with hunting horn accompaniment, developed in France in the nineteenth century and spread to Germany in the mid-twentieth century. Before that, ensembles of German Forstmeister
had had a rather small repertory, chiefly the Huntsman’s Chorus from Weber’s Der Freischütz
. That’s an effective piece for outdoor multi-horn performance but a bit limited.
All the music here was written by French composers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I hadn’t encountered any of them before and the only music by any of them which I could find recorded is for the horn – just one CD containing music by Rochard on Acte Préalable (see below for details) and nothing more by any of the others.
The Deutsche Naturhorn Solisten is a group of nine performers on the natural horn, under the direction of Wilhelm Bruns. They frequently perform with organ or orchestral accompaniment, as here with Johannes Michel on the Steinmeyer organ in the Christuskirche in Mannheim.
The natural horn is a notoriously difficult instrument; my enjoyment of several authentic-instrument performances of baroque music has been mitigated by problems of hitting the right note, most recently in the case of the opening of the first Brandenburg Concerto in John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording for his Soli Deo Gloria label. A few very minor mis-hits apart, the performances on this MDG recording are amazingly spot-on.
In outdoor performance an organ accompaniment is not feasible – a portable instrument or harmonium, perhaps, but nothing as grand as the 1911 Mannheim instrument employed here. A full specification and a description are given in the booklet, the latter in German only, from which it’s apparent that this is, indeed, a mighty beast of almost 8000 pipes, formerly the largest in South Germany and still the largest in Baden. Though the church was damaged in the Second World War, the organ needed little work to restore it.
Johannes Michel, here mainly in the role of accompanist, obviously has to rein in the instrument’s full potential. The booklet refers to twelve recordings which he has made, but gives no catalogue details; I’d very much like to hear him let the instrument rip. Unfortunately, the only recording which I can find reviewed is one where he plays the harmonium d’art in a 2-CD programme of music by Karg-Elert. Colin Clarke thought highly of Michel’s playing but felt that the recording would be of specialist interest only (CPO 999 631-2 – see review
). On his only other recordings which I can find currently available in the UK, for CPO and Christophorus, he also plays the harmonium.
I’m sorry that I have to repeat Colin Clarke’s words in respect of the new CD: for all the attractiveness of some of the music, the variety within each individual setting, and the enthusiasm of the performances, this is likely to remain the domain of specialist interest. When you’ve heard one Mass for Saint Hubert – they were all written circa 1900 - you’ve more or less heard them all. I can’t imagine a better case being made for the music – after all, the Solisten seem to have made it something of a speciality in their concerts, though it’s not their sole repertoire – but, equally, I can’t imagine taking the CD out too often. There are recordings of similar music which come as part of a more varied programme – for example, an Acte Préalable recording (AP0116) of the Par Force Ensemble in music ranging from Handel to the same Gustave Rochard whose music opens the MDG CD. Would that the present recording had offered such a variety of material.
The recording is good – with no attempt to simulate an outdoor ambience – and the notes, by Wilhelm Bruns, are informative. The English translation is perfectly acceptable, though a little stilted in places. This is not the first CD that I’ve reviewed recently that I would have loved to like better than I did; I apologise for repeating myself, but that sums up my feelings about La Fête de Saint Hubert
. A little goes a long way.