A Noble and Melancholy Instrument

Music for horns and pianos of the 19th century
Alec Frank-Gemmill & Alasdair Beatson
65:56
BIS-2228 SACD
Music by Beethoven, Dukas, Glazunov, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Franz Strauss & Vinter

At a time which has seen something of a backlash against the use of period instruments, it is great to come across this CD which makes such a powerful case for the additional value of performing on the instruments the composer intended. In the course of taking us through the 19th century and beyond using a variety of appropriate instruments, these two young musicians ably demonstrate how much their respective instruments changed in the course of just over a hundred years. We begin with a revelatory account of the Beethoven Horn Sonata with wonderfully resonant pedal notes from the Raoux orchestral horn of around 1800 which on their own make the exercise worthwhile. But listen, too, and enjoy the rasping hand-stopped chromatics which Beethoven exploits perfectly, as well as the clarity at the lower end of the Lagrassa fortepiano of 1815. Similar revelations are evinced from the music of Schumann and Franz Strauss by the use of a valved Wienerhorn and a Streicher 1847 piano – we are in a new sound-world which both exemplifies and made possible the Romantic composers’ response to new possibilities. Back to a valveless horn with its varied palette of tonal qualities for Rossini and Saint-Saens before the early 20th-century piston horn – which Alec Frank-Gemill uses for Glazunov, Dukas and Vinter – illustrates just how far we have come since we started. What is interesting, though, is that all the instruments featured, both horns and keyboards, have their own charms and their own relevance to the music of their times. This kind of instrumental odyssey is a huge technical challenge for players, and Frank-Gemmill and Beatson show consummate skill on all of them as well as enormous musicality, as they traverse the decades. This CD is an education in the best possible sense, as well as making an undeniable case for the use of appropriate period instruments.

D. James Ross