A Noble And Melancholy Instrument

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Dukas,Glazunov,Rossini,Saint-Saëns and F Strauss,Schumann
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: A Noble And Melancholy Instrument
WORKS: Beethoven: Horn Sonata in F, Op. 17; Schumann: Adagio and Allegro in A flat, Op. 70; plus works by Dukas, Glazunov, Rossini, Saint-Saëns and F Strauss
PERFORMER: Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Alasdair Beatson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS 2228 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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There was a time when a recital featuring a number of different period horns and pianos would have almost certainly been an uphill struggle for both players and listeners. So to encounter a programme featuring some of the core works in the horn repertoire played on historically appropriate instruments with such effortless musicianship and technical ease really takes some believing.

Most ear-tweaking of all is a performance of the Beethoven Sonata in which Alec Frank-Gemmill – a former BBC New Generation Artist and currently principal horn with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – plays a natural horn, complete with hand-stops for those notes that lie outside the natural harmonic series. These strangely muffled sounds can strike the uninitiated as sonic drop-outs, but here are despatched almost nonchalantly as part of the music’s natural fabric. Praise as well to Alasdair Beatson, who plays an 1815 wooden-framed Lagrassa with exceptional sensitivity and fluency.

Schumann’s oft-encountered Adagio and Allegro also takes on a whole new life (and concentrated intensity) here when the golden-toned ease of the modern instrument is exchanged for the notoriously precarious Ventilhorn, which at the time was pushed to its outer limits for reliability by the composer’s challenging writing. Perhaps the greatest surprise comes, however, with two turn-of-the-century instruments – a Mahillon piston horn and an 1898 Bechstein piano – which combine in Dukas’s Villanelle to create the exciting impression of what was then cutting-edge manufacturing technology being put through its paces. Once again Frank-Gemmill and Beatson enter the fray with fearless alacrity, making even the most well-worn of phrases sound freshly-minted.

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Julian Haylock