Friday 9 February 2024

Horns galore: incandescent playing from Ben Goldscheider in the London premiere of Gavin Higgins' terrific new concerto

Gavin Higgins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Gavin Higgins, Christopher Warren Green, London Chamber Orchestra (Photo: Jerome Weatherald)
Gavin Higgins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Gavin Higgins, Christopher Warren Green, London Chamber Orchestra (Photo: Jerome Weatherald)

Elizabeth Maconchy: Music for Strings, Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4, Gavin Higgins: Horn Concerto, Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Ben Goldscheider, London Chamber Orchestra, Christopher Warren Green; Cadogan Hall

The London premiere of Gavin Higgins' new concerto reveals an imaginative sound-world and satisfyingly structured work allied to incandescent playing from Ben Goldscheider

Horn player Ben Goldscheider premiered Gavin Higgins' Horn Concerto last month with Jaime Martin and BBC National Orchestra of Wales [see Ben's article on the work], but the work got a further outing on Wednesday 7 February 2024 at Cadogan Hall when Ben Goldscheider was joined by a different orchestra and conductor, the London Chamber Orchestra and Christopher Warren Green to give the work's London premiere. In what was a packed and eclectic programme, Goldscheider also was the soloist in Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4, and the orchestra played Elizabeth Maconchy's Music for Strings and Sibelius' Symphony No. 5.

Gavin Higgins' Horn Concerto opened the second half, but frankly it was the work around which the programme centred. It is a substantial piece, lasting around 30 minutes and for an orchestra that includes four horns (in addition to the soloist) as well as tuned percussion.  

Higgins describes the concerto is an evocation of the forest of his childhood (he grew up in the Forest of Dean) with each movement referring to this - Understorey, Overstorey, Mycelium Rondo. For Understorey, we began low and dark, with a distinct whiff of the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold (with its horn undulations) except that here the tuned percussion added a little disturbance. Throughout, I loved Higgins' imaginative sound world, the large orchestra imaginatively used. The centre of the first movement include a long rhapsodic cadenza-like section for Goldscheider over sustained orchestral textures enlivened with what I thought of as jungle noises. Certainly, the forest of Higgins' imagination was a richly vivid place.  There was a general feeling of movement upwards towards the end of the movement, with more athletic writing for the soloist and some wonderful duelling with the orchestral horns. There were moments when the textures made me think of Tippett (no bad thing), as well as, ultimately, a proper cadenza for Goldscheider.

 With Overstorey we were high up, with magical sounds suspended in the orchestra (no bass support at the beginning). Over this was a gorgeous solo horn cantilena, with Goldscheider and Higgins between them spinning a lovely long line. The orchestral horns had their moment here, without the soloist, but Goldscheider returned with more rhapsodic writing, again the orchestral colours and timbres underneath keeping us on our toes. What I liked about Higgins' writing was the way he wasn't shy of romanticism, yet always it was presented in an interestingly tangential way.

The final movement, Mycelium Rondo refers to fungal threads, but the emphasis is on rondo as we began with catchy rhythms from the tuned percussion, eventually joined by Goldscheider playing tricksy, fast rhythmic writing that my notes describe as demented hunting horn. Terrific stuff. The orchestra got to slow down, but the horn writing remained fast and vivid, and of course the orchestra horns had to get in on the act and there were some 'anything you can do' moments which contributed towards the excitement building to the end.

All in all a terrific piece that managed to be full of colour and imagination, yet also be beautifully structured so that it satisfied as well. Goldscheider was simply terrific, throwing off the challenging horn writing with complete charm and aplomb. It might have been difficult but he seemed to be enjoying himself too.

The programme began with Maconchy's Music for Strings, a substantial work in four movements that Maconchy wrote for the 1983 BBC Proms. The opening movement was brooding and mysterious, somewhat sombre in tone, and whilst the Scherzo seemed quite perky, the sombre tone continued giving the music an unsettling feel. A beautifully yearning solo viola was big feature of the third movement, Mesto, again serious and intent. The final movement had jazzy rhythms but did not quite spring to life. Overall the performance felt somewhat too serious in tone, perhaps to studied.

Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4 followed, with a smaller ensemble and without conductor. By contrast to the Maconchy, the playing here had a vital presence. From the opening notes with the orchestra giving us an urgent and very present performance. Ben Goldscheider, playing from memory, brought and effortless sense of line and style to the music, along with a warm even tone. There was an engaging insouciance to his performance too, particularly in the more ornamental moments. The free flowing middle movement also showcased Goldscheider's line and elegance, and I loved the way he dared to fine the tone right down. There was a perky joyfulness to the final movement along with a lightness of touch.

The evening concluded with Sibelius, though after Gavin Higgins' stupendous concerto it almost felt as if we didn't need anything else. I can understand why Sibelius' Symphony No. 5, with its terrific horn writing, was programmed but frankly the evening seemed to have one piece too many. There were corners of the Sibelius and the Maconchy where you felt that perhaps the size and complexity of the programme was a challenge to the players.

The chorale-like wind writing that Sibelius uses in both the first and second movements was superbly done and when the horns got their moment, they did indeed go for it. The strings lacked the detail, finesse and sheen that we are accustomed to in this music. The symphony premiered in 1915 with the revised version coming in 1919 and I bet the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at those performances were a lot closer to the forces we heard at Cadogan Hall than today's Berlin Philharmonic. Yet that sense of challenge also brought a vividness to the playing; what the players gave the piece a feeling of engagement and excitement, with the final pages having great immediacy.

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