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Franz STRAUSS (1822-1905)
Les Adieux [5:55]
Nocturno for Horn and Piano, op.7 [5:39]
Theme and Variations for Horn and Piano, op.13 [11:16]
Fantasy on the Sehnsuchtwalzer by Schubert [12:01]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Alphorn hör ich schallen for voice with piano and horn accompaniment, op.29 [4:02]
Andante for Horn and Piano in C major, op.86A [3:34]
Introduction, Theme and Variations for Horn and Piano, op.52 [9:25]
Richard STRAUSS/Franz HASENÖHRL (1885-1970)
Till Eulenspiegel – einmal anders, op.28 [8:43]
Xiaoming Han (horn)
Peter Schmallfuss (piano), Katja Boost (mezzo), Dora Bratchkova (violin), Rainer Müller-van Recum (clarinet), Marc Engelhardt (bassoon), Martin Dobner (double bass)
rec. February 1995, SR, Saarbrücken M3 (Hasenohrl), April 1996, SR Saarbrücken, M1(remainder)

Firstly, it has to be said that the music on this disc is not great. It consists mostly of fairly routine ‘recital pieces’, designed to put aspiring players through their paces, and therefore beloved of conservatoires and the like. It will though be of special interest to lovers of the horn – not only players, who will be in a state of mild though pleasurable shock after hearing it, but to all lovers of utter musical mastery.

The Chinese horn-player Xiaoming Han, now in his fifties, has been principal horn of the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra since 1985, when he was just 22. He has spent time in Beijing since then, managing the orchestra of the National Centre for Performing Arts, but is at present back with his orchestra in Germany.

Despite my reservations about the music, it is an undeniably fascinating programme, combining music by the Strausses, father and son. Many listeners will know that Richard Strauss’s father was a renowned horn-player, but are unlikely to have heard much if any of his own music. He was quite a prolific composer – his horn concertos make occasional appearances in concert programmes today – and a true musical stick-in-the-mud, effectively banning his son from having any truck with the modernists Wagner and Liszt, even though he himself played first horn in the premiere of Tristan, and was consulted by Wagner regarding Siegfried’s horn call in the Ring.

So his music is, predictably, conventional, though, as one would expect, effectively written for the horn. Les Adieux is an early, short and rather sulky piece, followed by the equally brief but attractive Nocturno. The Theme and Variations is a more extended and impressive piece, with a genuinely lovely slow episode at its centre. The Franz Strauss part of the disc is completed by a Fantasy on the Schubert piano piece Sehnsuchtwalzer (‘Waltzes of Longing’, D365/2). This begins with another gloomy minor key introduction, but then goes off into an entertaining enough series of variations. Again, the most attractive part is the lyrical slow variant around four minutes into the track.

What of Xiaoming Han’s playing? Hard to describe adequately; even in the hands of such great players as Dennis Brain or Barry Tuckwell, the horn has never been made to sound so flexible, so expressive – and so easy, even though we know it is anything but. Han’s tone is creamily smooth, with just that hint of vibrato that warms the sound so attractively. He has a wonderful command of the upper reaches, and his top notes ring out heroically, as one would expect from a first horn of his calibre. He doesn’t eschew a firm, brassy sound in the lower reaches either, which is glorious to hear. You never feel for a moment that he is likely to fluff or ‘crack’ a note — though in the nature of things I expect there were some re-takes — and the whole disc is breath-taking in its combination of artistry and bravura.

The Richard Strauss pieces are not among his most distinguished. Even so, Ein Alphorn hör ich shallen’ (‘I hear an Alphorn sounding’) is a pleasant song, with horn obbligato and the welcome contribution of the rich-toned mezzo, Katja Boost. Don’t expect to hear anything of the ‘great’ Richard Strauss here; along with the song, the Andante and the Introduktion, Thema und Variationen were written at various times as gifts for his father. They are nearly as conventional as his Papa’s own music. The Andante, which seems to be a movement from a planned but never completed horn sonata, does have Strauss’s characteristic twisting key-changes to add to its interest.

The final item on the disc is a true novelty – Till Eulenspiegel – einmal anders (Till Eulenspiegel – one more time) by Franz Hasenöhrl. I was delighted to come across this, as I remember trying it out when I was a student, and hadn’t heard it since. It’s written for a quintet of violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon and double bass, and is a kind of ‘edited highlights’ of Strauss’s original orchestral masterpiece. It’s mildly entertaining; but in the end rather infuriating in that the ‘editing’ involves lopping bits off phrases, so that everything is rushed and unbalanced, with key-changes short-circuited. Worth a listen, and I don’t imagine it’s been recorded before … though I could be wrong. I’ll warrant you’ll then want to go back Strauss’s tone-poem in its wonderful complete version. The recording, as for the whole of the CD, is first-class.

As a feast of truly stunning instrumental virtuosity, this is a great issue; and for horn player – compulsory.

Gwyn Parry-Jones