Tuesday 6 March 2012

Virtuoso works for natural horn on the South Bank

To the Purcell Room on Monday 5th March to hear Anneke Scott (natural horn) and Kathryn Cok (forte piano) play early 19th century works for horn and piano. A fascinating programme which explored the music written by Beethoven and his younger contemporaries to show off the techniques of the virtuoso horn players of the time.

Horn playing had developed immensely in the 18th century, with hand stopping techniques being introduced to enable players to have access to the full scale rather than just the natural harmonics available. The use of hand stopping means that the non-harmonic notes have a wide variety of textures and timbres quite different to the modern horn.

Scott and Cok opened their recital with the Andante e polacca for horn and piano by Friedrich Kuhlau (1786 - 1832). Kuhlau was born and brought up in Hamburg but just as he was establishing himself as a pianist the city was invaded by Napoleon and Kuhlau fled to Denmark where he settled. His Andante e polacca was a short, charming 2 movement work with a rather grand opening movement leading into a lively polacca which seemed modelled on a rather operatic set of variations.

The balance between the two instruments seemed to generally favour the horn. Cok was playing a modern copy of a 1798 forte-piano by the Viennese maker Rosenberger and Scott was playing  a natural horn dating from 1820 by Marcel Auguste Raoux. Scott's horn playing produced a far wider variety of sounds than we might expect from the modern instrument with its evenness of tone over the whole repertoire; instead there was a wonderful textural quality to the way each individual note had a distinct timbre.

The second work in the programme was more substantial, the Grand Sonata in F for piano and horn, Opus 34, by Ferdinand Ries (1784 - 1838). Ries studied in Vienna with Beethoven and Ries's sonata post-dates Beethoven's own ground breaking sonata for piano and horn. In fact it is a longer, rather more developed piece than the Beethoven sonata with a very substantial piano part. Ries's writing for the horn seems to respond to what the instrument was then capable of, including some daring chromatic explorations of the instrument's lower reaches. But the piece is still heavily reliant on the piano for the musical structure.

We know the background to Beethoven's Sonata in F for piano and horn, Opus 17 thanks in part to Ries who collaborated on one of the first biographies of the great composer. Beethoven was commissioned to write a horn sonata for the virtuoso Giovanni Punto and in fact left the writing of the piece till the day before (it was premiered in 18 April 1800). As a result, the sonata is rather episodic, but could not help but be by anyone other than Beethoven. The comparison between the Ries and the Beethoven sonatas brought out again the problem of comparing lesser work's a great composer with major works by a lesser composer. I have to admit that I found I still admired the Beethoven sonata, though my horn playing companion seemed rather taken with the Ries.

Beethoven's piece seemed less decorative the Ries's, though he rather cheated with the slow movement which is very short, but followed by a lively rondo. Ries in fact not only used the same key as Beethoven but used a Rondo in the last movement. Beethoven was clearly working with Punto as he included a lot of Punto's show-off tricks including creating notes lower than the horns lowest natural harmonic. In fact this piece showed off the wonderful variety of the timbres that the instrument was capable of.

The second half opened with a performance of Haydn's  piano Sonata in E flat, Hoboken XVI/52, a substantial and very musically satisfying piece written for London in 1794/5. But one which enabled me to take stock of Cok's forte-piano playing. In all the pieces, the forte-piano part seemed to be at a single level without the sense of muscular straining, particularly in the Beethoven where Cok seemed content to operate well within the limits of the instrument rather than pressing it. In the Haydn, the vivid and exciting dynamics of the piece just did not seem to come over. Though the horn sonatas were all written with substantial piano parts, there was a little too much of the feeling of the piano tinkling away nicely underneath rather than developing a real muscular piano part.

The programme concluded with the Sonata in E flat for piano and horn, Opus 28 by Franz Danzi (1763 - 1826). Danzi joined the Mannheim court orchestra at the age of 15 and from then onwards his career was linked to Mannheim and Munich (where the Electoral Court was moved). Danzi was friends with another younger composer, Carl Maria von Weber, and it is Weber's influence that seems to hang over this sonata particularly in the piano writing. Danzi had a nice melodic turn, which came to the fore particularly in the slow movement with a lovely lyrical melody introduced by the horn. One thing noticeable in all the works in this programme was how relatively short breathed the horn writing was, though Danzi seemed to stretch the phrases the longest. Then in the finale, a lively Allegretto, Danzi really gave the horn its head.

I have to confess that there was quite a bit of discussion with my horn playing companion about Scott's technique, with some horn players feeling that Scott could have achieved smoother tone with the hand stopped notes. But I have to confess that I loved the multi-coloured textures and timbres that Scott produced; her playing of the more brilliant passages was vivid, with just the right note of bravura. These were pieces written to show off the original players and that's just what Scott did.

The applause at the end of the recital was deservedly warm, so Scott and Cok treated us to a delightful transcription of Schubert's song The Trout. A fine end to a fascinating recital, full of amazing musical treats.

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