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Tribute to John Cerminaro
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11 [14:24]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Elegie, for horn and piano [9:53]
Sonata for Trumpet, Horn and Trombone [8:47]
Franz DOPPLER (1821-1883)
L’Oiseau des Bois [5:36]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Romance, for Horn & Piano, Op.36 [3:27]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Elegy for Mippy [2:40}
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Romance for Horn [2:22]
Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Nocturne, Op.35 No.10 [3:32]
John Cerminaro (horn)
Nadine Asin (flute), Thomas Stevens (trumpet), Ralph Sauer (trombone), Zita Carno (piano), Frøydis Ree Wekre, Carol Bacon, Brain Drake (horns)
Paul Taylor Orchestra / Paul Taylor
rec. 1981-1996, live, 29 June 2007, Zurich (Strauss)

You will probably only have heard of John Cerminaro if you are a follower of the USA horn circuit. Throughout the 1970s he was Principal Horn of the New York Philharmonic (during the Bernstein era), and followed this with lengthy periods in the principal’s chair at both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony. He also did a lot of recording for the Crystal Records label, and this tribute disc seems to have been released somewhat belatedly by them to mark his 70th birthday in 2017.

The rather noisily live performance of the Strauss Concerto should need no excuse to be preserved on disc. Performed in Zurich on 29th June 2007 alongside an orchestra created that same year by conductor Paul Taylor, this is a truly outstanding performance. Cerminaro’s gloriously robust playing, his impeccable precision and clarity of articulation and his stupendously rich and varied tone, belie his (then) 60 years. The impish wit he brings to the ebullient opening movement, the eloquence with which he expounds the glorious slow movement theme, and the energy and vitality he brings to the galloping finale, set this performance apart from many others and place it very near - if not at - the top of my own personal recommended versions of this most entertaining of Strauss concertos. The open spirit, the often operatic lines and the beautiful gracefulness of the music find their perfect champion in Cerminaro. Neither should we understate the outstanding role that Paul Taylor and his orchestra perform in supporting and illuminating the performance. Orchestral interjections dovetail flawlessly with horn solos, and while the music is driven along briskly, one suspects that conductor and hornist are in total sympathy with each other. The recording has also come up very well considering it is now over a decade old and was made at a live performance (at which the audience responded to the performance with wholly justified enthusiasm). For the horn specialists, the booklet notes – which tend to read rather more like an advert for other Crystal records releases than perceptive or illuminating essays on the music – inform us that the instrument Cerminaro uses for this performance was made of gold-brass by Englebert Schmid and the mouthpiece custom made for Cerminaro by the conductor’s father, Ross Taylor.

Such detail is not forthcoming for the collection of other works on the disc, recorded at various times between 1981 and 1996. Among these, a particularly interesting inclusion is Franz Doppler’s L’Oiseau des Bois, a delightful little musical picture postcard for a quartet of horns with flute descant played chirpily by Nadine Ash. The booklet tells us this is a “very unusual combination”, but it works superbly and while musically this is pretty mundane, it is elevated by this beautifully balanced and sensitively played performance.

In one of his typically over-enthusiastic proclamations, Bernstein hailed Cerminaro as “the greatest horn player in the world”. Cerminaro’s response was to record Bernstein’s Elegy for Mippy with such deep sensitivity and obvious affection that one can almost accept Lenny’s statement at face value. Zita Carno is the equally sensitive and affectionate pianist here. She also supports Cerminaro in two short, rarely heard, but thoroughly delightful Russian horn pieces. Scriabin’s Nocturne is a genuine work for horn (dating from 1890) but sounds more like a transcribed song; although, perhaps, that is the result of Cerminaro’s remarkable ability to assume an almost vocal quality in his playing. GliŤre’s Nocturne is, on the other hand, so perfectly suited to the horn that it casts its charms effortlessly from the very first note. Again the Cerminaro/Carno partnership is a model of intuitive interpretative perceptiveness.

The remaining pieces are fairly core repertory French works. Saint-SaŽns’s Romance is delivered with consummate elegance by Cerminaro and Carno, who also present a delightfully spiky account of Poulenc’s Elegie switching seamlessly between its aggressive outbursts and its passages of dark intensity. The disc closes with more Poulenc, the delightfully witty and playful Sonata for Trumpet, Horn and Trombone. For this, Cerminaro is joined by fellow members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from his time there in the 1980s, trumpeter Thomas Stevens and trombonist Ralph Sauer. The sense of three friends enjoying a musical treat together is perfectly captured in this bright, clear and immediate recording. Tempi are brisk, moments of sentimentality milked without going over the top and there is an over-riding mood of cheerfulness and at times friendly rivalry. A fitting end to a truly delightful disc.

Marc Rochester

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