Review – Mdina – Music for Horn

Review – Mdina – Music for Horn
20th May 2019 MPO Marketing


I am not one of Beethoven’s greatest fans: I respect rather than idolise him. On the other hand, I was seriously impressed by the Sonata for Horn and Piano in F major, op. 17 dating from 1800 – not 1880 as cited in the liner notes! It was a commission from the Czech hornist Johann Wenzel Stich (1746-1803) who was better-known by the pseudonym Giovanni Punto. I have never consciously listened to this work before.

There are three contrasting movements.  The opening ‘allegro moderato’ is in sonata form with two good contrasting themes. The progress of the music is presented as a dialogue between the two soloists rather than the piano just providing an accompaniment.  The short second movement is played slowly, ‘poco adagio, quasi andante’. This is not profound music, more like a little bit of peace and quiet before the rumbustious finale. Unsurprisingly, this ‘allegro’ is a rondo which challenges the prowess of the horn player with various twists and turns between the theme and the episodes. The sonata ends on a positive note, despite a more thoughtful passage in the minor key. Written for natural horn, this Sonata is now usually played on a valve instrument.

The work may not be one of the Beethoven’s masterpieces, however it is fun, enjoyable and entertaining. It has been suggested that it is a piano sonata with a horn obligato. This is a little unfair, but I get the point. Anecdotally, Beethoven began to write the work the day before its first performance. It seems on that evening the composer wrote out the horn part and improvised the piano accompaniment. One would never guess.

Johannes Brahms’ Horn Trio in E flat major, op. 40 was written in 1865 and partially commemorates the death of his mother, Christiane. It is unusual for its time in being written for the natural horn (i.e. one without valves). The liner notes suggest that Brahms conceived this work whilst on holiday at Lichtenthal, near Baden-Baden in the Black Forest. It may be that the ‘particular timbre and sylvan associations of the natural horn might have seemed to him more attuned to these rural surroundings.’ It is also known that Brahms was suspicious of some modern innovations in brass instrument design. It is scored for the rare combination of violin, horn and piano.  Despite the score calling for a ‘Waldhorn’ (hunting horn), I understand that the work is usually played on the modern valve horn. The opening movement, an ‘andante’, is really a rondo with themes being passed between solo instruments supported by a grave piano accompaniment. The ‘scherzo’ makes use of clichéd ‘hunting horn’ motifs and sounds lively and energetic. The ‘trio’ section is more thoughtful: it is based on a piano piece composed a dozen years previously. As may be expected, the heart of the work is the elegiac ‘adagio mesto’. This music is full of grief and mystery and is a fitting tribute to his dead mother.

All becomes happy once more with the Finale, an ‘allegro con brio’. Brahms takes a melody from the final bars of the slow movement and transforms it into a ‘life-affirming’ conclusion that is characterised by sheer optimism.

Richard Strauss’ short, but very beautiful Andante for horn and piano, op.86a was composed in 1888 for the celebration of his father and mother’s Silver Wedding Anniversary.  It was published only as recently as 1973. It is a straightforward piece, with conventional harmonies but includes some surprising modulations. It is a gorgeous tribute to the composer’s parents.

After the relative conventionality of the Beethoven, Brahms and Strauss I found the ‘modern’ works a little hard going. That is not to say I did not enjoy them.

Heinz Holliger’s ‘Cynddaredd – Brenddwyd’ is a case in point. This Welsh title is translated as ‘rage (or madness) – dream’ – and that certainly sums up this difficult and vibrant music for solo horn.  This sequence was extracted from the strangely-titled work COncErto…? Certo! – cOn soli pEr tutti dating from 2001.  I have never heard this ‘concerto’. The present piece is a masterclass in sound (noises) produced by the French Horn. Extended techniques are used that include, ‘trills, half-pressed keys, ‘flutter-tonguing’ and passages requiring simultaneous blowing and singing into the instrument.’  It is an interesting score that impressed me so much that I listened to it twice-over, straight away.

Maltese-born Jesmond Grixti’s Mdina (1995) is another exploration of what innovative sounds can be made by the horn. This tripartite piece is meant to be an evocation of the beautiful Maltese city of Mdina: the medieval ‘Silent City.’ The composer has suggested that this music is characterised by pungency, lyricism and passion. It is certainly a remarkable work with a modern but approachable idiom.

The final contemporary work on this CD is Jörg Widmann’s short Air für Horn (2005). Clearly, he has been influenced by the original ‘natural’ horn. It is a haunting piece that seems to reach back into the past and recovers the spirit, if not the sound, of the early instrument. This work features the harmonic series derived from the natural horn, rapid changes between open and stopped notes and the use of microtones (intervals smaller than the semitone).  It is an exciting and challenging piece for solo horn.

The liner notes by Joseph Camilleri and Etienne Cutajar are excellent and provide a brief but helpful introduction to this music. There are the usual biographical notes about the artists. The sound quality of this CD is excellent and allows all the ‘strange’ sounds emanating from the horn to be clearly heard.

The horn soloist Etienne Cutajar is a master of his instrument and always provides an excellent and inspiring performance. His technical skill and imagination are especially apparent in the modern works. The other performers, Carmine Lauri (violin) and John Reid (piano), contribute much to the success of this fascinating and stimulating release.