This is a splendid, wide-ranging recital emphasising music from the 20th and 21st centuries with three side-trips into Romantic and Baroque territory. Lin Jiang’s horn-playing is technically dazzling; nothing seems beyond him, from scales of the utmost rapidity to wide-ranging leaps and the aggressive whoops and splats that pepper some of the pieces. His dynamic range is impressive, extending from feathery pianissimo to full-throated forte; his intonation is always precise; his tone, luscious. Here he’s partnered with Benjamin Martin, an excellent pianist, in energetic, sensitive, and nuanced performances.
According to the notes, the Schumann Adagio and Allegro from 1849 ‘was the first significant piece to be written for the valve horn...and has remained one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire ever since.’ The first movement is suffused with Schumann’s readily identifiable brand of Romantic sentiment, while the second projects energy and passion alike: two lyrical interludes interrupt the forward momentum before being swept up in the impetuous dash to the finish. Jumping forward 130 years, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Sea Eagle for solo horn alternates long, sustained, vaguely mournful lines with sudden violent outbursts. Knowing that Davies lived in Scotland’s rugged Orkney Islands suggests an image of the soloist pacing the edge of sea-bound cliffs, musically mimicking the majestic flight of the great bird that inspired the piece. Davies is sometimes thought of as an intimidating composer, but there’s nothing here to confound an unprejudiced listener. Performers, however, may have qualms about tackling the piece, as it’s reputed to be ‘phenomenally difficult’.
The lushly pedalled, somewhat jazzy chords at the beginning of Gunther Schuller’s Nocturne (the second movement of his Horn Concerto, written at the age of 18) set the simple but memorable melody in an impressionistic haze that later mutates into a Scriabinesque soundscape. The atmospheric performance makes me eager to hear the complete concerto in its original orchestration. Before becoming conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen was both a horn-player and a composer (I don’t know if he’s kept up the horn, but he’s still composing). The piano-writing in the faster sections of his Horn Music I sizzles with the same vigorous, non-stop rapidity heard in movements 2 and 4 of Hindemith’s Sonata for Alto Horn and Piano (frequently performed, as here, on the more commonly encountered French variety). Martin’s precision, clean pedalling, and surging, but always musically inflected forward momentum contribute mightily to the overall effectiveness of both pieces. The slow section of Horn Music I in which the piano part is at first kept to a minimum, includes some delicate sounds and is more optimistic in spirit than the equivalent moments in the Hindemith, which seem sombre and slightly disturbing by comparison: there’s a jubilant side to the Salonen that’s quite infectious. Differing moods aside, the Hindemith is a tour de force in its own right.
Poulenc’s Elégie (in memory of Dennis Brain) opens with an angry tone that might be interpreted as rage against the fate that brought a wonderful career to an abrupt, senseless end. Elegiac thoughts are expressed in the horn’s lyrical lines and piano’s subdued support. The central fanfares of Ketting’s Intrada are framed by haunting music, as if the piece were an introduction to a psychologically complex play revolving around a medieval tournament. Huang’s Encore, My Good Sir brings the concert to a rousing close. There’s an amusing story behind the piece: Lin Jiang had asked his fellow student for something that ‘should be easy to play but sound difficult...the composer commented later that, with its leaps, runs, high notes, and whoops he had certainly ‘managed to fulfil the second part of the request!’ Although the Huang concludes the recital, I’ve saved Brain’s arrangement of Marais’s Le basque for last, as it’s such a charmingly played, albeit brief, encore piece. Originally for viola da gamba, Brain described it as ‘a little French dance that also happens to be the shortest piece I know’. French it may be, but it sounds more like a sprightly English sea shanty, with the song’s delightful tune nicely embellished in its second go-round. If you can hear it without smiling you must be dour, indeed.
This elegantly packaged CD is my first exposure to Melba records, an Australian company that boasts Richard Bonynge, Joan Sutherland and Barry Tuckwell among its founding patrons and directors. If subsequent releases are as fine as this one, collectors will have a lot to look forward to.