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
GENUIN CLASSICS GEN15340 [74:39]
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