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War Horns - Concerto for ten french horns (2015) [17:38]
Stefan de Leval Jezierski, Grzegorz Mondry, Anna Mondry, Mateusz Feliński, Czesław Czopka, Łukasz Łacny, Robert Wasik, Gabriel Czopka, Igor Szeligowski, MichałI Szczerba/Pawel Pudlo
rec. Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio - Polish Radio Warsaw, 2017
DUX 1440 [CD: 17:38 + DVD: 30:00]

Over the years I have enjoyed reviewing various discs of massed brass and/or brass ensembles. So this disc entitled War Horns - Concerto for ten french horns was intriguing. To be clear - this is in no way a concerto by any dictionary definition of the term. It is a new piece by the young Polish composer/producer Pawel Pudlo for an ensemble of ten horns with no other instruments or accompaniment - unless you count the light installation - about which more later.

The last comment belies the fact that Pudlo considers the visual (and other) elements as central to this work as is the music. This seems to be an on-going theme in his work - his description in the liner lists him as “working on two trans-media projects”. It also explains the dual disc format of the set; the 17 minute standard CD of a studio recording of the 'concerto' and an accompanying 30 minute DVD with stills, a trailer, excerpts from a concert performance and the like. Much if not all of this DVD content can be found on YouTube - search “pudlo war horns” and up pop the links - this trailer can also be found on Pudlo’s own website. Watch a couple of those segments and decide for yourself. To hear a complete uninterrupted performance of the work you will have to buy the CD.

Pudlo’s background - taking this from the liner biography - would appear to be more in film and TV and certainly this music is cinematic rather than contemporary in the more literal sense of the word. The ten players are of various nationalities but this is in essence a Polish project and it would seem that the horn section of the Wroclaw Philharmonic forms the core of the ensemble The playing is excellent; powerful, dynamic and full of character. The bulk of this relatively brief work is written for the horns in a snarling aggressive style, lots of stopped muted lurching phrases and stuttering rhythmic cells. About the only thing I liked about the DVD was watching just how relaxed the players were and the ease with which it seemed that they played this work. If your idea of a massed horn ensemble is along the lines of The Vienna Horns playing ‘Jurassic Park’ - which is simply sensational by the way (try Youtube) - think again. This is a very different musical concept but as such equally valid and superbly executed.

Where I do struggle is with the earnestly sober idea behind this work. Everything in the liner and DVD promotes the strapline “the piece is a tribute to the victims of all wars”. Of course that is a completely laudable sentiment as are the other ones the liner and DVD contains. But its presented with such po-faced earnestness that for me it becomes more about the messenger than the message; ‘look at me I really care about this...’. The liner/DVD contains lots of beautifully executed images; black and white photography of the horns stretching to infinity, a mannequin-like woman dead amongst the rubble of war - but still with her make-up and pearls intact. This last description is of a staged photograph as is made clear in the ‘making of’ section of the DVD. It is all done with such care and attention to the aesthetic execution of the concept that for me all of the horror, tragedy and inhumanity of War is subsumed by nominal style presented here. Lastly, as far as the video is concerned - again watching the recording sessions, I was reminded of similar sessions for TV and film I used to do as a player. Why do perfectly good composers think they are also the best ones to conduct their pieces? To be blunt, Pudlo cannot conduct at all. He literally beats out a hilariously square 4 beats (usually at around quarter note = 60) with his head firmly in the score. It then cuts away to the players - all of who have a set of headphones on presumably with a click track in them - none of whom look at Pudlo once. Why he didn’t stay in the recording booth and let someone more able conduct I do not know. The reason I comment at length about this DVD element is simply because this is clearly deemed important by the producers of this set.

So to the music itself, again I have to stress how much I enjoyed the actual playing and indeed – given Pudlo's cinematic background – he achieves some striking and dramatic musical effects. At seventeen minutes this does make for some rather unrelentingly sombre writing - lots of musical gloom and doom. The liner shows that the piece is divided into two ‘Chapters’ – “War” and “Effects of War” which in turn have five sub-sections. Given the effort lavished on everything else why on earth were these ten sections not given individual tracks. The music runs continuously and to be honest it is all but impossible to be certain where one section ends and the next begins. There is a general brightening of the mood towards the end. It is clear - again from the DVD - that Pudlo’s idea for this work is that in concert it should be staged with a complex light-show. Of course, the CD eliminates this element completely and I am left wondering if totality is the key to appreciating this work quite how valid an audio-only segment is? With all the content that is on the DVD it is a shame that a fully stage/lit performance could not be offered as an alternative. The audio-only recording is actually technically fine - the Warsaw Radio Studio used is a very good but neutral recording space allowing the horns to sound full without any undue resonance; the engineering also copes very well with the mighty massed sound of the full ensemble. Ten horns at full throttle is a thrilling sound.

For all of the explanations given, rather curiously some details are omitted. The liner briefly mentions that this project is part of ‘Phoenix Cities’ which promotes arts events in the most destroyed cities of World War II. It also mentions a sculptural installation that was part of this project. This can be seen on the DVD - a rather beautiful stylised Phoenix - but in the midst of all the moody stylishness of the liner booklet there is no room for an image of this sculpture in the midst of the rubble and epigrams – “war is always hunting for beauty” we are told. Odd this, since the striking image on the fold-out cover for this set is a pair of horns combined so as also to represent a phoenix. Lastly - again given that presentation here is triumphing over content - I wonder why a native English speaker was not asked to proof all the written content in the booklet and on the DVD? Nothing is clunkingly wrong just not really elegant either.

I have no doubt of the complete sincerity that imbues this project. However, for me it gets quickly mired in its own stylistic pretensions which masks the excellence of the playing, the interest in part of the music and the worthiness of the sentiment.

Nick Barnard



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