Thursday 24 March 2022

Writing against the grain: late-romantic horn concertos by Malcolm Arnold, Christoph Schönberger & Ruth Gipps from Ben Goldscheider

Arnold, Schönberger, Gipps - Horn Concertos; Ben Goldscheider, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lee Reynolds; Willowhayne Records

Arnold, Schönberger, Gipps - Horn Concertos; Ben Goldscheider, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lee Reynolds; Willowhayne Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ben Goldscheider give sparkling performances in three late-Romantic concertos, two unjustly neglected mid-Century British works and the premiere by an Anglo-German contemporary composer

Recording artists seem to be eagerly uncovering a trove of mid-century British concertos that have been undeservedly forgotten or remain underappreciated. Last year, Peter Cigleris gave us clarinet concertos by Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch and Peter Wishart on Signum [see my review] and next month Simon Callaghan's disc of piano concertos by John Addison, Arthur Benjamin, Elizabeth Maconchy, Humphrey Searle, Edmund Rubbra and Geoffrey Bush is issued by Lyrita.

And now horn player Ben Goldscheider celebrates the triple centenary of composers Malcolm Arnold and Ruth Gipps, and horn player Dennis Brain (in 2021) with a recording of Arnold's Horn Concerto No. 2, Op. 58 which was written for Brain, along with Gipps Horn Concerto. On this disc from Willowhayne Records, Ben Goldscheider, the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Lee Reynolds perform horn concertos by Malcolm Arnold, Christoph Schönberger and Ruth Gipps.

Arnold's concerto was written in 1957, that of Ruth Gipps in 1968 whilst Schönberger's is relatively recent, being written in 2019, yet all three have a commonality in that the music being written was somewhat against the grain of prevailing orthodoxy. One of the reasons why the concertos I mentioned in the first paragraph became neglected was the way mid-century British composers tended to be writing against the grain and often works were for particular people or places, and never reached common currency. Listening blind to the three horn concertos on the disc, I was fascinated to realise that all three composers created remarkably busy solo parts, only occasionally do we get to experience the horn as a lonely romantic with long-breathed melodic lines. And the writing is often full-on, with the soloist providing a constant stream of notes. The music on this disc might not always sound showy (each of the composers takes a distinctive view as to what a concerto is), but I suspect that it is taxing to play.

We begin with Malcolm Arnold's Horn Concerto No. 2, Op. 58, written for Dennis Brain. The two men had a close personal and working relationship. The concerto was premiered in 1957, but was completed in 1956 shortly after the first Gerald Hoffnung concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where Arnold's Grand, Grand Overture was premiered alongside Brain performing Leopold Mozart's Horn Concerto on a length of garden hose-pipe (I kid you not, and recording exists to prove it!). Brain's performance of Arnold's Concerto at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1957 came only weeks before his tragic death on 1 September 1957.

Arnold started out as a trumpeter (becoming principal trumpet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and as a composer seemed to have both a knowledge of and affinity with brass instruments - two horn concertos, a trumpet concerto, a brass quintet, a symphony for brass instruments, solo instrumental fantasies. The concerto here is relatively traditional, in three movements.

The first movement, Con energico plunges straight in, there is no orchestral introduction, and the style has a neo-classical feel to it, yet it is restless too and this is one of the full-on movements a mentioned, keeping the horn player busy and us amused. There seems to be a plethora of musical and melodic material. The second movement, Andante grazioso is a complete contrast. Here we do have the horn as solo romantic figure. It opens in quiet, intimate fashion with a lovely solo horn melody of rocking strings, a serenade perhaps, but later on we get hints of a darker sort of night evoking Bartok's night music. The finale, Vivace, returns us to a world that is vigorous and highly rhythmic, yet even here Arnold finds time to create lovely relaxed moments and bring in some nice touches of bluesy harmony.

Christoph Schönberger is a contemporary composer, born in Germany and now resident in the UK, who writes in a contemporary tonal style, though the CD booklet is woefully lacking in any biographical details. His horn concerto is the longest of the three on the disc at a whopping 30 minutes long, and though Schönberger's style is traditional, the structure of the work is distinctive with each movement having a multi-sectional feel, so much so that the first movement felt almost like a single-movement work.

The first movement begins gently, with just the horn which is then gradually joined by other instruments. The writing is often quite spare, and the sound world is intriguing. The opening introduction is quite gentle, but the music develops a restlessness as the larger structure unfolds. Again the writing for the horn is full on, even in the gentler moments. Schönberger is unafraid of being directly Romantic, but there is much else besides here. The second movement also begins with a horn gesture, and Schönberger's writing can be quite neoclassical. The more thoughtful writing gives way to darker moments (like Arnold, Schönberger's night mixes romance and terror), and there is even a moment that approaches a cadenza. The finale has hints of Mozart in the solo horn line. Initially the music has a rather nice swing to it, but then things go wandering and we get a movement full of variety, until the end were Schönberger brings the orchestral brass to the fore too. The orchestration is distinctive, as Schönberger omits clarinets, horns and trumpets, but includes trombones and tuba.

Ruth Gipps wrote her Horn Concerto in 1968 for her son, Lance Baker and Baker premiered it with Gipps conducting her London Repertoire Orchestra. The work has a couple of interesting features. Until the final movement the writing for the horn is more primus inter pares than showy soloist, and as Ben Goldscheider explains in his booklet note, Baker read music at concert pitch (rather than playing the horn part in F as is typical) which affected the keys and the ways that Gipps wrote for him.

The first movement, Con moto, opens with a brilliant orchestral motif, and throughout the concerto the brilliance and colour of Gipps' orchestration is notable. The introduction features an expressively romantic horn and a full-on, very confident orchestral setting, leading to a rather lovely neo-classical main section, yet Gipps has moments of time out too where things relax. The second movement, Allegretto, is scherzo-ish, perky and engaging with constantly changing moods. The orchestra opens the finale, fast and brilliant and when the horn comes in the writing is to match, with the soloist finally getting to be bravura.

This is a terrific disc, and in many ways a daring one, featuring two rarely performed concertos and a world premiere. You suspect that it was something of a passion project for Goldscheider who performs all three works with great style and devastating aplomb. Lee Reynolds and the orchestra follow in similar style, and that both Arnold and Gipps were imaginative orchestrators shows the orchestra off to their advantage.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)  - Horn Concerto No. 2, Op. 58 (1956) [14:42]
Christoph Schönberger - Horn Concerto (2019) [30:12]
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) - Horn Concerto (1968) [17:21]
Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Lee Reynolds (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, 1 & 16 March, 15 May 2021


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