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Pictures - Music for 8 Horns and Percussion
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Stephan Schottstätt) [21:53]
Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Georg Köhler) [11:42]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Suite For Variety Orchestra - Waltz and Dance (arr. Christoph Eß) [6:52]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet Op.64 - excerpts (arr. Stephan Schottstätt) [18:28]
Piotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - excerpts from Suite Op.71a (arr. Ralph Ficker) [15:12]
German Hornsound 8.1(Christoph Eß, Sebastian Schorr, Stephan Schottstätt, Timo Steininger) with Carsten Duffin, Ralph Ficker, Martin Grom and Christian Lampert (horns), Simon Rössler (percussion and keyboards), Hannes Krämer (conductor)
rec. The Studio of the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Germany, 17-19 April 2014

A disc of music performed just by eight horns - and a percussionist - may seem like rather specialised fare. Before deciding that this might not be for you it is important to realise that this is a recording of exceptional musical and technical skill that happens to be on the French Horn - all eight of them.

The core of the group is the German Hornsound. They are four players who came together in 2009 in the class of Christian Lampert at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart. All four now hold posts in major German orchestras. For this project they are joined by three more colleagues - two of whom also trained in Stuttgart - plus Christian Lampert himself. They make a simply glorious sound but this disc proves to be much more than just a display-disc for brass junkies to drool over. This is exceptional music-making full-stop.

With the exception of the Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain all of the arrangements have been undertaken by players in the ensemble. The liner explains that these arrangements have been made to exploit the particular skills of each player but who plays what is not indicated. Likewise it seems that all play standard rotary valve double horns in F and B flat - as far as my limited technical knowledge of the horn goes and from the instruments they are holding in the centre-fold picture in the liner booklet. The only exception comes in the shape of the atmospheric use of a Wagner tuba in two of the Pictures at an Exhibition. I mention them using standard horns to highlight the extraordinary range - high to low - achieved. The main work is a near complete performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I remember when Elgar Howarth's great transcription of this work for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble first appeared and people marvelled at the virtuosity it required (review). This version takes those technical demands to an even higher level. Where Howarth could transfer lines to nimble and flexible cornets or trumpets here it has to be on a horn. Usually with this type of recital I find I develop a certain degree of aural fatigue after a while listening to just one instrumental timbre. Not here, the group produce a remarkably wide range of tonal colouring which is as appropriate to the music as it is simply beautiful or thrilling as the music demands.

Unusually, the performance of Pictures at an Exhibition is split across the disc interspersed with other - unrelated - items. At first glance I thought this was a less than ideal gimmick. Actually it works rather well. All of the pieces are pictorial in a broad sense, and all are Russian so it is not a huge intuitive leap to see them as an extended sequence of pictures hence the album title. It is mportant to reiterate that this is a fine piece of music-making. The group is directed by Hannes Krämer. There are no interpretative idiosyncrasies in any sense - these are beautifully shaped, sensibly moulded performances. The ".1" in the title "German Hornsound 8.1" is percussionist Simon Rössler whose day job is in the Berlin Philharmonic. He doubles up on all the percussion - I wondered if some parts required tracking to allow him to move quite so quickly between instruments - as well as the celesta part in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and an added nimble-fingered piano in Tybalt's Death. Aa mentioned earlier, all but one of the arrangements have been made by players within the group. The exception is Night on Bald Mountain which has been made by Georg Köhler. My one observation on all these is that aside from the brilliance of the horn arranging I was a little surprised that more use was not made of the percussion to add some extra colour. In Pictures for example - this is not a re-writing of the Ravel orchestral treatment for horns - however they do copy Ravel's idea of the ox wagon Bydlo approaching and receding. I do miss some of the climactic percussion in the closing Baba Yaga and Great Gate. The exception is Köhler's arrangement which makes very interesting and effective use of a marimba as well as xylophone - I think - in his work.

To write of highlights in such a disc implies some passages are less impressive which is not so. However, first amongst equals probably goes to the three excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet. This is a phenomenal piece of arranging and playing with all of the visceral impact of the original work retained - the aforementioned Tybalt's Death is quite stunning and the cumulative drama of Juliet's Death (a typo in the liner says Julia's) is superbly sustained. Likewise the mellifluousness of the Shostakovich Waltz is lovingly played and followed by the wonderfully swirling Galop from the same Suite for Variety Orchestra. It is well worth listening with great care to hear the remarkable articulation of the inner part-writing not just the lead lines. The level of precision in intonation, ensemble and execution is thrilling. If I have a sorrow it is that a few of the movements from Pictures have been omitted. This is already a well-filled disc but there would have been room for Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle and Catacombæ (Con mortuis in lingua mortua). The latter in particular would seem to be a gift for the rich blended sound of this horn group. The Nutcracker Suite provides another vehicle for remarkable virtuoso display - again one can but wonder at the level of virtuosity in the miniature overture - but for the only time in the programme I missed the extra tonal palette of the full orchestra.

The quality of the performance is backed up by excellent technical production. The studio at Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen is a warmly generous acoustic ideally suited to the sound of this group. Rather serendipitously the engineer is one Michael Silberhorn and he manages to catch the very large dynamic range of the group to perfection as well as placing each instrument pleasingly across the listener's soundstage. The disc is package in the now-popular cardboard gatefold with the disc sitting in a plastic tray on the right-hand side with the liner tucked into a slot on the left. The liner is in German and English only. The English translation rather labours under the occasional too literal approach; "[the music] veers into explosively political undertones with the jazzy riffs of an orchestral suite by Shostakovich. An ensemble with true fortitude is required to undertake a program of these tonal dimensions .... listeners can also enjoy eight buddies and the passion for the spiraled instrument with a flared bell heard in every tone." The liner is also adorned with illustrations by one of the group, Sebastian Schorr. This is clearly deemed important since his artwork is credited on the front of the disc in the same size font as the name of the ensemble. My opinion is that for an artist he is a brilliant horn player. This is by no means the first disc ever to celebrate the glory of massed French Horns - I would direct readers either to the Vienna Horns disc "Director's Cut" - an ORF label disc of film music given the massed treatment to heroic effect - or The London Horn Sound on Cala playing "Give It One" which is massed jazz horns (review). This new disc is every bit the equal of those discs and in many ways a good point of entry to the world of the horn ensemble as the repertoire itself is of the highest order.

A thrillingly brilliant disc as musically exciting as it is artistically impressive.

Nick Barnard