Ben Jacks, principal horn with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, seems poised to become the next big thing in the horn world. Or so this new disc suggests; not only does Jacks implicitly bear the seal of approval of a celebrated predecessor, Barry Tuckwell, who serves as this program’s conductor, but Jacks’s playing stands on its own: lithe, technically impeccable, and displaying the varied colouring you’d more likely expect from a vocalist.
Nearly half this disc is devoted to works by Jean-Michel Damase (b.1928), a composer who may be familiar to aficionados of woodwinds and harp, but perhaps to few other listeners. If you know his Sonata for Flute and Harp, which has been recorded several times (most notably in the 1960s by Rampal and Laskine), you’ll know what to expect from the two horn scores here, dating from 1987 and 1995: a blend of angularity and French lyricism, comfortable for Poulenc fans, and often demonstrating melodic roots in Fauré. Damase wrote the Rhapsodie in 1987 upon a suggestion from Barry Humphries, best known for his comedic alter ego Dame Edna. There’s nothing funny about this music, though; Humphries requested something ‘inspired by the ocean and the atmosphere of the coast’ to be performed by Tuckwell. Like Debussy’s La mer, it recounts the passing of a day at the seaside, and its great technical demands pose no apparent problems for soloist Jacks. Damase’s more abstract and traditionally structured Horn Concerto from 1995 features some of Jacks’s loveliest playing on this disc.
Charles Kœchlin’s Poème, from 1927, is as substantial as either Damase work (each lasts roughly a quarter of an hour). This is Kœchlin’s orchestration of his Horn Sonata, intended to be played by an orchestra’s principal horn from his or her usual seat rather than next to the conductor. The soloist weaves through a woodwind-rich texture rather than dominating the stage, and Jacks has several opportunities to display his fine legato, with soloist and conductor maintaining careful balances throughout.
The remaining items are more modest in duration, thought not necessarily in technical demands. Jacks may lack a distinctively French tone, but he has just the right Gallic aplomb in the familiar and viciously difficult Villanelle of Paul Dukas, presented here in a sparkling and colourful new orchestration by Paul Terracini. The same can be said for the other standard-rep piece, the Morceau de concert of Saint-Saëns. There’s one last novelty to mention, a lovely but relatively unfocussed Phantasy (as the Brit-oriented spell it) written in 1905 by George William Lewis Marshall-Hall, a London-born contemporary of Dukas who became a major musical figure in Australia during the first decade and a half of the 20th century.
Melba’s DSD surround sound is spacious and full, and the packaging, as usual for this Australian label, is elegant but not overdone. In every respect, this is a fine release.