Tuesday 19 March 2024

Two hundred years of music for the horn: Ben Goldscheider in Beethoven, Bowen, Widmann and Watkins

Ben Goldscheider
Ben Goldscheider

Jörg Widmann, Beethoven, Schumann, Huw Watkins, York Bowen; Ben Goldscheider, Richard Uttley; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 17 March 2024

200 years of music for the horn as Ben Goldscheider showcases devastating technique, lovely tone and superb musicality in a programme that engaged, intrigued and challenged

Horn player Ben Goldscheider's Sunday morning recital with pianist Richard Uttley at Wigmore Hall on Sunday 17 March 2024 featured a programme that stretched from Beethoven's Horn Sonata in F right through to contemporary pieces by Jörg Widmann and Huw Watkins, with Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 and York Bowen's Sonata in E flat for horn and piano, Op. 101 representing more romantic approaches to the instrument.

Writing for the horn in the 18th and 19th centuries often depended on composers developing a relationship with particular players, yet we also have to remember that the technology of the horn was developing during the 19th century, though was not always adopted early. So that Robert Schumann's explorations of the horn were linked to the development of valves, which gave composers more scope, though there are surprisingly few major romantic horn works until the 20th century.

Ben Goldscheider's recital began firmly in the contemporary period with the Air for solo horn from 2005 by Jörg Widmann, a work which calls for a highly virtuosic technique, pushing the boundaries, yet it also looks back to the horns origins. It began with simply horn calls, creating an evocative and haunting atmosphere with a great variety in the use of timbre, yet Widmann challenges too and the central section was vigorous and athletic with some simply astonishing moments. Whilst taking full advantage of valved horn capabilities, Widmann also refers to the natural harmonic sequence, another striking mixture of ancient and modern. Material from the very opening seemed destined to return at the end, but Widmann wrought significant changes to it and we ended with striking multiphonics. Widmann wrote the work as a test piece for a competition, but here Goldscheider played it with style and aplomb.

We jumped back over 200 years for the next piece, Beethoven's Horn Sonata in F from 1800, written for a horn virtuoso. This is music for the natural horn, written for Giovanni Punto and building on the player's skill at arpeggios and athletic writing. We began with an elegant piano introduction, then the stylish horn playing seemed to push the material a little towards romanticism. But the limitations of writing for the instrument were apparent in the stormy passages in the development when the piano had to do all the heavy lifting. The slow movement was short but evocative, with a lyrically engaging finale showcasing Goldscheider's poised performance.

We then moved to 1849, the year Schumann was experimenting with the horn. In fact, his Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 were written for clarinet and piano, but various other instruments were sanctioned and here, Goldscheider showed that the music is perfect for the modern horn. Utley's subtle piano playing complemented the long lines and shapely phrases of Goldscheider's horn in the first movement. The second began with a contrast between the engagingly impulsive piano and the more sober, yet richly coloured horn, the two then developing the music into something more urgent. The final piece had a youthful sense of impulsiveness.

Huw Watkins' Lament from 2020 was written for Ben Goldscheider for his disc Legacy: A tribute to Dennis Brain [see my review] and Watkins was deliberately inspired by the writing in Poulenc's Elegie, written in memory of Dennis Brain. Here we had a piece that began with a sense of haunted magic, really leaning into the horn's romantic links. As the music became more intense and strenuous, there were elements of rapture and triumph, until everything died. The use of a mute brought a new colour to the opening material's sense of magic.

]Ben Goldscheider will be returning to Huw Watkins' music in April when he gives the world premiere of Huw Watkins' Horn Concerto with Britten Sinfonia at Saffron Hall (7 April 2024) and Barbican (9 April 2024), see Britten Sinfonia's website for details.]

York Bowen counted the horn as one of his instruments and he left a small but important body of work for it, mostly written for father and son horn players, Aubrey and Dennis Brain. Dennis Brain would give the premiere of the Concerto for Horn, Strings and Timpani, Opus 150, but Aubrey Brain premiered the Sonata in E Flat for Horn and Piano, Op. 101. It is an unashamedly romantic piece, echoing late Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss, not to mention seeming to inhabit a similar world to Arnold Bax.

The opening movement plunged us straight in to this world of impulsive romanticism, and this was unashamedly modern in outlook in its highly chromatic horn writing. There were were darker moments, and some of the lush piano writing of John Ireland. The slow movement opened with dramatic piano gestures and horn calls, striking indeed and Bowen brings the material back to punctuate the movements highly developed romanticism and lush harmonies. It was here that the debt to Rachmaninoff seemed to be greatest. The third movement began with a rather insouciant swagger, and we were firmly in England here, but then there were torrents of notes in the piano with long horn phrases over, working up to a fine climax. 

Throughout the concert, Goldscheider made us forget about the various technical difficulties that the pieces present, and instead we were able to enjoy his fine sense of musicality, his emotional intelligence in projecting different styles of music in just the right way. Throughout he was ably supported and partnered by pianist Richard Uttley, whether playing the elegant Classicism of early Beethoven or the fistfuls of notes in the late Romanticism of Bowen.

We stayed in this sound world for Ben Goldscheider and Richard Uttley's encore, the third movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata arranged by Goldscheider. The arrangement showed off Goldscheider's gorgeous tone, and created the horn sonata that Rachmaninoff never wrote but should have!

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