Melbourne-born hornist Barry Tuckwell was the world’s foremost exponent of his instrument until he retired about a decade ago. Now Hobart-born Ben Jacks, at the age of 34, looks set to become Tuckwell’s successor Down Under for now, and, on the basis of this recording (his first), worldwide in the near future. Jacks studied in Perth, Chicago, Berlin, Cologne, and Vienna. Since 2001, he has been principal horn of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and is in demand throughout Australia for guest appearances. Hence it is entirely fitting that Tuckwell serve as conductor for Jacks’s program. Though Tuckwell’s contribution here is in a supporting role, readers may recall that this artist for a time turned to conducting as a second career. (Other horn players who followed this route include George Szell, Norman Del Mar, and, presently, James Sommerville, principal horn of the Boston Symphony.)
Jacks’s 71-minute program consists of five works by four French composers spanning just over a century, plus one by an English-born Australian. This is the Phantasy by George William Lewis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), a gentle, lyrical, Schumannesque piece that might have come from one of that composer’s Eusebius moments. The Phantasy and the two works by Jean-Michel Damase (b. 1928) are billed as world premiere recordings. Also on disc for the first time we find Dukas’s well-known (to horn players) Villanelle with orchestral accompaniment by Paul Terracini. (Dukas’s original scoring is lost; the work is commonly played with the composer’s piano accompaniment.) The only other standard repertoire item on this well-chosen program is Saint-Saëns’s Morceau de concert. Jacks plays both the Dukas and Saint-Saëns works with astonishing agility, the kind more associated with a clarinet or a flute than with a horn, yet the playing is so natural, unaffected, and seemingly effortless that one is scarcely aware of the virtuosity involved.
Right from the opening flourish of Damase’s bright-‘n’-breezy Concerto, it is obvious that Jacks’s playing is going to command attention throughout. Youthful bravado, brash boldness and exceptional flair alternate with passages of reflective beauty. His tone has a gentle glow to it, particularly in the softer moments, but Jacks can also be boldly assertive when required. There is a clarity, an openness, and a brightness that reminds one of Dennis Brain, though Jacks’s sound is considerably richer and fuller than is Brain’s. Think of open-sky country, which Australia has in great abundance. What one never hears from Jacks is a coarse, raspy, or ugly sound, even in the most forceful passages. Kœchlin’s three-movement Poème (the composer’s orchestration of his Horn Sonata) proves an ideal vehicle for Jacks’s seductive tone, with much of the music evocative of sylvan settings and summery reveries. Melba’s customary acoustic clarity and John Humphries’ informative liner notes contribute further to making this release a winner in every respect.