EXPLORING MUSIC: ''ONE CRACKERJACK PLAY
The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987
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David M. Greene
Though I've played at several instruments in my time, I've never mastered one. But if I had the opportunity, it would be either the cello or the French horn. They share for me a visceral impact that is otherwise produced only by the human voice. (If you prefer the piccolo or the ukulele, don't write in; it's a matter of individual psychological makeup, I suspect.)
Recently, as reviewer for a local paper, I had to cover two concerts in which the horn was prominent. One involved a group from a major American symphony orchestra, apparently out to milk the hicks for a few bucks en route to the parent organization's New York stand. The evidence suggested they had not bothered to run through the numbers they had programmed, and the results were dismal. One saving grace was the horn- playing. The player, a young Siegfried in appearance, produced a gleaming golden sound that struck one as being everything a horn ought to produce.
But there was a problem: it reduced what the rest of the ensemble was doing to insignificance, and I found myself wondering why the horn had ever been used as a chamber instrument. A few days later I found out when I heard a similar ensemble from the Vienna Symphony, where the hornist (Falstaff instead of Siegfried) created a seamless blend with his fellows. My point, if any, is this: on records the engineers would have covered the American's aggressiveness. There is a difference between recorded sound and the real thing, no matter how "realistic" the first.
As everyone knows, the modern orchestral horn evolved from an instrument used to give hunting signals-a long conical tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a big flared bell at the other, coiled so as to be hung over the huntsman's shoulder. Hunting horns go back at least to the early Renaissance, but the historically effective model seems to have been developed in France (where it is still used in hunting) around 1650. Though various refinements were made to give the orchestral instrument more flexibility, it remained essentially a "natural" instrument, capable (like the bugle) of producing only the overtone series. It was around 1815 that a German player named Stolzel apparently first outfitted the horn with valves. The modern (lower-case) french horn is commonly the one in F and B-flat, a so-called double horn whose fourth valve switches it from the one pitch to the other. But not all players use it: many in Vienna, for example, stick to the "single" Vienna horn in F.
Despite the beauty of the sounds produced by the horn (especially in the hands of modern players), the repertoire is limited. Outside of the several concerti and ensemble pieces, the sonatas of Beethoven and Hindemith are towering peaks in a plain of competition pieces and salon morsels. From these latter things, however, David Jolley has chosen some of the most interesting and appealing.
To judge from recordings, the best known of these is the Schumann Adagio and Allegro. The composer wrote it In 1849, a year which produced also two works for horn quartet, though why his interest at that time remains obscure. The difficulties here lie more in the broad songful Adagio than in the faster section.
The largest of Mr. Jolley's selections is the one that gives its name to the record: Auf dem Strom. In his miraculous final year, Schubert wrote two extended songs with instrumental obbligato, the other being Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Crag), with clarinet. Auf dem Strom (On the River or On the Current) is a song of separation written for an all-Schubert concert. The singer then was a tenor, but you'll not hear it more beautifully performed than here, where Mr. Jolley is joined by soprano Lucy Shelton.
The hornist shows off his virtuosity best in the Saint-Saens "Concert Piece" (perhaps better known in its later orchestral dress) and in the Dukas Villanelle (some arresting muted playing). The Scriabin Romance is odd in that it seems to be his only independent instrumental work outside of those for orchestra and/or piano. Whoever Mr. Jolley may be, he is one crackerjack player.
Review for Auf Dem Strom; Romantic Works for Horn