The first horns had no valves, and the pitch was changed by moving the hand in the bell. This was referred to as "hand-stopping" (see the informative album notes), and these instruments, known as natural horns, were very temperamental and difficult to play. Around 1818, pitch reliability improved somewhat with the invention of the valve horn, but the instrument still remains one of the most unpredictable in the orchestra, as any frequent concertgoer can tell you. That's all the more reason to sing the praises of this new hybrid release from Melba. It features a superb collection of lesser known works for horn and orchestra stunningly performed by one of today's finest hornists, Australian-born Ben Jacks. Not only that, but there are three world première recordings here!
The concert begins with the first recording of a 1995 horn concerto* by French composer Jean-Michel Damase (b. 1928). In four movements, there's something of "Les Six" in the opening, melodic moderato. The perky scherzo is a delightful example of Gallic impishness, while the following andante has a main theme somewhat reminiscent of that in the last movement of Randall Thompson's (1899-1984) second symphony (1931). The animated finale, an allegro, gives Jacks a chance to show off his considerable abilities on one of the world's most fickle instruments.
French composer Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) is represented next by his Poem for Horn and Orchestra*. This is an orchestral version he made in 1927 of his sonata for horn and piano (1918-1925). The first of its three movements could well be a musical depiction of a verdant mountain valley. The sudden appearance of what sounds like a hunting party conjures up images of Weber's (1786-1826) Wolf's Glen. The following andante with its extended melodies and honeyed horn lines might well describe a beautiful sunset. One can imagine the finale as inspired by those pelagic poems of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) that motivated Delius to write Songs of Farewell (1929-30) and Vaughan Williams, A Sea Symphony (No. 1, 1903-09).
Another first recording of an additional work by Damase follows. His Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra** (1986) was written for and premièred by Barry Tuckwell, who lays down his horn and takes up the baton here. According to the album notes, it was to be inspired by the sea, and begins with dotted motifs followed by an extended ascending melody for the horn which could be an ocean sunrise. The tempo gradually increases, suggesting gentle sea breezes and circling gulls as we set sail for distant shores. The work ends peacefully with the soloist and orchestra painting a picture of graceful rolling waves. The variety of tonal colorations Jacks produces on his instrument during the course of this fifteen minute voyage is amazing.
In 1906 French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was asked to write a piece for the Paris Conservatory annual horn competition being held that year. He came up with his Villanelle*, or Rustic Song, for horn and piano, which, like Koechlin, he later orchestrated. Unfortunately, being one of the most self-critical composers who ever lived, he subsequently destroyed the expanded version! But take heart, because the first recording of a new realization of it by New Zealand arranger Paul Terracini is included here. Based on an attractive lyrical melody in tandem with another bubbly, jolly tune, it's a thrilling tour de force where every aspect of horn playing technique, including "hand-stopping," is explored.
Written ten years before the Dukas, Camille Saint-Saëns' Concert Piece for Horn and Orchestra* (1887) is definitely not for amateurs, and contains passages that would be impossible on a natural horn (see the opening paragraph). It opens with the soloist stating a heroically angular theme that's repeated with virtuosic embellishments. An attractively lyrical developmental section follows, and then the piece ends in an exciting tongue-tying coda. It's Camille at his best and totally devoid of any academia!
British-born and educated George W. L. Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) spent the last half of his life in Australia, and was best known as a teacher, poet and conductor. But this first recording of his Phantasy for Horn and Orchestra** (1905) proves he was also an accomplished composer. It's a beautiful late romantic reverie that sounds for the most part English except of an occasional Germanic turn of phrase. Many will find it was worth getting the disc for this alone! By the way, you may also want to investigate his symphonies.
Under the watchful eye of conductor Tuckwell, whose reputation as a hornist is legendary, our soloist Ben Jacks performs everything to perfection. That along with the exceptional support rendered by The Queensland Orchestra (*) and Orchestra Victoria (**) make a strong case for this music and a horn recital you'll not soon forget!
Down through the years the Australian audio engineers have produced some of the world's finest recordings, and this hybrid disc is no exception. Even though the venues for each of the orchestras were different, the soundstages for both seem identical, and very convincing in both the stereo and multichannel modes. The horn is beautifully captured and perfectly balanced against a totally natural sounding orchestra, where the tiniest of instrumental detail is faithfully reproduced. In the stereo mode, most will probably find the string sound superior in Super Audio. The multi-channel track very successfully recreates the best virtual seat in the house. Audiophiles will want this one.