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The Christmas Album
American Horn Quartet
Queensland Symphony Orchestra Horns/Peter Luff, Kerry Turner
Harry Wilson (didgeridoo)
Lachlan Hawkins (percussion/drum kit)
rec. 2015, Queensland Conservatorium, Australia
MSR CLASSICS MS1650 [49:34]

This is not the first brass Christmas disc from MSR, but it is a noteworthy one. And it must be the first to include didgeridoo! The MSR catalogue is large and varied, from a stunningly recorded Bruckner Fifth (LSO/Lance Friedel) to Icelandic Violin Duets and, of great historical value, the recordings of pianist John Browning.

We begin here with a brief minute’s worth of Mendelssohn, bright and fresh in Kerry Turner’s arrangement for eight horns. Lines are perfectly judged and balanced. The members of the American Horn Quartet (themselves resident in Germany and Luxembourg) travelled to Brisbane for this recording and a nod to this lies in the opening didgeridoo improvisation to Kerry Turner’s delightful three movement Symphony of Carols. Lots of the favourites here: “Deck the Halls”, “Away in a Manger” (nice and brisk pace for that one), “Angels in the Realm of Glory” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” (this latter joined by “Coventry Carol” to make up the central slow movement) to name a few. The work seems to bring a sense of depth to the experience rather than just to present a string of tunes, and succeeds excellently. The fanfares of the finale are delivered in the spirit of exultation, enshrouding as they do the theme to “Adeste fideles”.

Any brass player will at some time come across arrangements of music by the likes of Gabrieli for brass ensemble. A similar idea lies behind Kerry Turner’s arrangement of Jacob Handl’s Aspcicens a Longe, and it has a beautiful complement in Turner and Brooks’ arrangement of the traditional German carol Lo, how a rose is e’er blooming (“Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”). The richness of the chording in the latter is gorgeous, and clearly the “rightness” of the sound is the result of much thought.

Wonderful to hear a touch of Messiah in “For unto us”; there is, perhaps, a direct analogy between the difficulty of the vocal semiquavers and getting that combination of evenness and definition on the horn. Enough to say it is complete joy from first to last. And of course, given that this album was recorded in Australia, there had to be an Australian carol: the lovely The Three Drovers, virtually unknown outside Australia.

In contrast everyone, surely, knows The Christmas Song, heard here in a heart-warming arrangement by Walter Perkins (some superb control in the upper parts). Perhaps horn players are not necessarily associated with the jaunty agility of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, but the p[resent performers completely nullify any such impression with a performance of immense joy and virtuosity (all accompanied by the sound of sleigh bells; there’s a whip in there, too, and a great imitation of a neighing horse at the end).

While it might be entitled Christmas Fiesta, Walter Perkins’ piece begins ruminatively before a jazzy version of “Little Drummer Boy” starts a process of gradual opening to extroversion before we embark on passages undeniably indebted to big bands. While we are gifted the accuracy of the studio here, we also have the exuberance of a bunch of brass players at the top of their game just having fun, a sense of un that certainly pervades “You’re a mean one, Mr Grinch” (from Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

Finally, Kerry Turner’s Hymnus, commissioned for the Japanese horn ensemble Ahorn. It uses Gregorian chant as its main theme (“Divinum Mysterium”) and is intended to celebrate both horn octet and cathedral pipe organ in its horn writing. There are some passages that sound of notorious difficulty, yet are tossed off nonchalantly while other hornists project a melody that soars above with a Richard Straussian nobility.

We are told this will be the last album by the American Horn Quartet before its retirement; a sad day for lovers of horn playing, for sure; but plenty to enjoy here. The performance standard is positively stratospheric and certainly silences criticism; all is caught in a beautifully warm recording. Not just for horn players.

Colin Clarke

Sechs Sprüche: No. 1, Weihnachten (arr. Turner)
Solo Didgeridoo Improvisation
Kerry TURNER (born 1960)
Symphony of Carols, Op. 52. Hymnus
Jacob HEINDL (1550-1591)
Aspiciens a Longe (arr. Turner)
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming (arr. Brooks/Turner)
The Three Drovers (arr. E. Grogan)
George Frederick HANDEL ()
Messiah - For unto us a child is born (arr. C. Jones)
Mel TORMÉ (1925-1999)
The Christmas Song (arr. W. Perkins)
Leroy ANDERSON (1908-1975)
Sleigh Ride (arr. Fry/Turner)
Walter PERKINS (born 1944)
Christmas Fiesta
Albert HAGUE (1920-2001)
You’re a mean one, Mr Grinch (arr. G. Winter)



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