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The Horn in Romanticism
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Villanelle (1906) [7:72]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Andante from Six pièces mélodiques originales pour cor à pistons et piano (1839) [3:31]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Romance Op. 36 (1874) [4:00]
Emanuel CHABRIER (1841-1857)
Larghetto (1875) [10:08]
Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Andante e Polacca (1848) [13:12]
Franz STRAUSS (1822-1905)
Nocturno Op. 7 (1864) [6:05]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Adagio und Allegro Op. 70 (1849) [9:37]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Andante (1888) [4:56]
Steinar Granmo Nilson (historical horns)
Kristin Fossheim (fortepiano)
rec. June 2019, Sofienberg Church, Norway.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
2L RECORDS 2L-162-SABD SACD/BD-A [59:05]

Any release that has Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire for its cover illustration is likely to get my attention, and while I probably wouldn’t normally select a horn and piano recital for casual listening pleasure I have long been fascinated by the qualities of natural and pre-valve horns. This has admittedly been in the past more for the outlandish tuning effects you get in hunt-themed sonic spectaculars from the likes of the excellent Hermann Baumann, and so I was delighted to find that there is an equal fascination to be had in the colours and expressive range of these instruments in duo repertoire from the Romantic era.

The first thing to note about this recording is the balance between fortepiano and horn. The fortepiano used is a recently restored Ernst Irmler from around 1850-60, and while it does have that characteristic period ‘twang’ in the sound it is actually quite full and rich in its sonorities. The various horns played by Steinar Granmo Nilsen are listed in the booklet but, as you would expect in a concert setting, they are played with the bell facing away from us, so that much of the sound reaches the microphones as reflections. The subtleties in the hand positions in the bell in combination with expert lip action make for a surprising variety of timbres, and in any case, fears you might have about the horn being ‘too loud’ are swiftly allayed, even after the initial vibrant call in Paul Dukas’s Villanelle.

‘Romanticism’ in music might easily be perceived as something that produces something expressive but at times a bit heavy or cloying. With the natural horn this is to a certain extent avoided through the limitations of the instrument. Chromatic complexity isn’t entirely absent, but in this programme is by no means a core element. The Villanelle was written as a text piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and there are some intricate passages and plenty of virtuoso demands, but this is also a work that appears to express “a last farewell to a tradition that had spanned almost three hundred years”, with the natural horn about to be taken over by the valve horn at this point.

Gounod’s Andante is a nice tune that gives the player plenty of opportunity to deliver gorgeous lyrical lines, as does Saint-Saëns’s Romance. Originally for horn and orchestra, Chabrier’s Larghetto explores extremes of range and the horn’s natural harmonics, the opening cadenza-like section giving the horn’s notes an almost rhetorical feel at times, the meat of the piece having a rambling, rather enigmatic quality. Carl Czerny is not a name one might have expected to see here, but this Andante e Polacca is not his only piece for horn and piano, opening as it does with minor-key melancholy, developing into something melodramatic, and only breaking out into its sprightly finale after about four minutes. Little is said about Franz Strauss in the booklet, but he turns out to have been Richard Strauss’s father, and someone who wrote numerous daily exercises for the natural horn. The rippling piano accompaniment over which the soloist soars makes for a fairly typical Nocturne.

We all know and love Robert Schumann, whose Adagio and Allegro shows he “had no qualms about making demands on the performer’s stamina, strength and flexibility.” There are some stratospheric high and hard-to-tune low notes for the horn in the Adagio, and the Allegro is of course a virtuoso tour de force, all played with panache and superlative musicality here. Richard Strauss’s Andante is better known in its version with orchestra. It was dedicated to his father Franz to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary and, as with some of the other pieces here, was intended for the valve horn, but proves perfectly playable on the natural horn.

This recording comes on a hybrid SACD disc with a Blu-ray disc also included. Recording quality is well up to 2L’s audiophile standards, and the resonance of Sofienberg Church is perfect for this duo. Most of this music is unlikely to shake your world to its foundations, but this is a well planned programme and the period sound of this combination of instruments creates its own highly enjoyable time machine.

Dominy Clements

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