Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mozart: Horn Concertos

Today's CD, a glorious recording of Mozart's Horn Concertos, gives me a chance to share a few thoughts on the miserable difficulties of playing the french horn.
Dennis Brain and the Philharmonia Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart: Horn Concertos; Quintet, K.452
EMI Classics, 1954, 1955
I may be a trumpet player, but I've fooled around with the french horn enough to appreciate how hard an instrument it can be to play. And the french horn is, at its core, an uncontrollable instrument. All it takes is a very, very tiny change in your embouchure (that's a fancy word for the shape and formation of your lips when they're up against the mouthpiece), and you'll play a completely different note from the one you expected to play.

And in Mozart's day, brass instruments (including the horn) were valveless. Thus you changed notes entirely by changing your embouchure-- and probably every third note was off-key. It helps explain why Mozart never wrote any good parts for the trumpet. He probably was too busy cringing at the thought of how it would sound.

One more point on the french horn before we get to the listener notes. French horn players, like most brass musicians, usually have power or finesse. Rarely do they possess both. The guy in your trumpet section who can nail those high notes usually looks pretty naked when it's time to play a soft air in the middle register. Likewise, the precise french horn player who rarely chips a note isn't the kind of horn player who can unload over an entire orchestra during the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth.

But there are occasional musicians out there who are hybrids--freaks of nature who have both power and control. And when it comes to the french horn, two players come to mind: Dennis Brain (who is the featured musician on today's CD), and Barry Tuckwell.

I once saw Barry Tuckwell do something live that I will never forget: he was appearing with the Syracuse Symphony in a conductor and performer role, and had just finished conducting (not playing) the first piece of the evening. He then went backstage, picked up his horn (cold), played no more than two or three warmup notes, and then walked out on stage and flawlessly played a difficult horn concerto. He made no mistakes and had not a single chipped note. It was pure finesse. And he never even had a chance to warm up.

Normal humans cannot do this.

Listener Notes for Mozart Horn Concertos featuring Dennis Brain:
1) If you think you're too busy to dedicate the time to listen to classical music, these horn concertos are perfect for you. Individual movements from these works tend to be very brief, ranging from four to six minutes in length. This is perfect music for listeners accustomed to 3-4 minute long popular music songs.

2) Mozart wrote these works for the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, who was his lifelong friend. Mozart wrote jokes, tasteless comments and insults to his friend in the original scores.

3) Concerto #1 (which ironically should be the last concerto if you were put them in the order in which they were written) was unfinished at the time of Mozart's death. The first movement was complete, but the Rondo movement had to be finished and arranged by one of Mozart's pupils, Franz Xaver Sussmayr. It's also unlikely that this work was originally intended to have just two movements. Mostly likely it would have also had a slow middle movement, just like the other concertos.

4) There's an ever so slight background hiss underneath the music, a relic of the analog source tape of this 1954-1955 recording. You'll be able to hear it with high quality headphones if you really crank up the volume, although I didn't find it to be a meaningful distraction.

5) And if you're snickering at the notion of "cranking up the volume" with Mozart, I don't take it personally. Go ahead and laugh.

6) At the 6:02 mark in the first movement of Concerto #3 (track 6 on this CD), you'll hear a cadenza, a passage where the orchestra drops out briefly, leaving the featured musician to play entirely by himself. Cadenzas were standard features of concertos written during Mozart's era--soloists would compose their own cadenzas in order to show off their skills with an instrument. Think of it an 18th century version of freestyling. With powdered wigs.

7) Another brief comment on the perfection of Dennis Brain. Everything he does on this CD is done flawlessly. He nails every high note, plays every run clearly, never chips a note and even plays trills cleanly.

8) Since Mozart only wrote four horn concertos with a combined playing time of under an hour, we get treated to a bonus work on this CD, Mozart's Quintet in E flat major. Unfortunately, it's a weirdly uneven performance, with Brain's usually perfection marred by mediocre playing by the woodwinds. While the oboe and clarinet often sound shrill and often off-key, the bassoonist is worse. He's completely in over his head. Listen, for example, at 3:40 in the first movement (track 12)--can you hear the bassoonist fumble all over those arpeggios? That's a community band-caliber performance, not something you should hear on a professionally recorded classical music CD.

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