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W. A. Mozart: Horn Concertos – Barry Tuckwell

Sunday, November 20th, 2005 by Martin Hester

 

Mozart: Horn Concertos
Barry Tuckwell (Horn)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Conductor: Sir Neville Marriner
Recorded 1971. EMI Classics

Play track 11 of this CD….. did you say to yourself “ah, I know that”? …..even by Mozart’s high standards of memorable, attractive melodies, this one really sticks in the mind. After one hearing, it sounds like a friend – simp√°tico, inventive, full of fun, perfect in the balance of its structure and variations. It’s the Rondo (3rd Movement) of the Horn Concerto no. 4 in Eflat major, K. 495. The eight-bar theme is made up of two phrases practically the same, except for their ending. Once introduced by the horn, it is then echoed by the orchestra. Then comes a middle bit, more lyrical, where the horn dialogues with the orchestra, which sometimes answers, sometimes echoes, and sometimes just supports the soloist. This bit gradually works its way back to a repetition of the theme. Mozart does this (theme + variations) 4 times, but it’s never dull – in fact it seems all too short! But behind the mellifluous, singing sound of the horn there is a surprising story of technical difficulties.

The instrument
In common with the other brass instruments used in the orchestra (trumpet, trombone, tuba), the horn (“trompa” in portuguese) is a long tube of metal which gradually opens out into a bell. The vibration of the player’s lips against the mouthpiece sets up vibrations in the air column in the tube, and these produce the note. There is a range of natural notes – the lowest has its wavelength corresponding to the length of the tube, the next to one-half the length, the next to one-third, then one-fourth and so on. These are called the harmonics. On a simple instrument such as a bugle (a trumpet without valves), these notes are the only ones that can be played, and the player moves from one to another by adjusting the tension in his lips. However, the purpose of the valves (on the horn, trumpet and tuba) is to make the air pass through a longer tube, thus lowering the note a bit. By depressing the valves in combination, the player can then get the intermediate notes between the natural harmonics. (In the trombone, the player moves a sliding part to make the tube longer). In this way, the instrument can play all the chromatic scale, just like a piano can.

The peculiarity of the horn is that although it is as long a tube as a tuba – but narrower – it is usually played in the upper end of its range, using the high harmonics (say 3rd to 16th). This produces a fine tone quality, but makes it very tiring for the player. Worse, the difference in pitch between the high harmonics is not much, and the player actually can’t be too sure which note he is going to sound. To help out on this a bit, most players play what is called a “double horn”. In one setting, the usual range is the harmonics in the key of F. However, by using a 4th valve, the tubing used is shortened, and the notes are in the natural key of Bflat. This makes playing higher notes a bit easier (but the fingerings for the same note are different between the two settings).

But this is not all. The horn will produce a different tone quality by using a mute – some form of obstruction placed in the bell of the instrument. For the horn, this is usually the player’s right hand. But, by muting in this way, the pitch of the note is altered also – if you’re already playing, it goes down. If you’re starting a note, it goes up!

Listen to Philip Doyle, BCS member and Principal Horn player in both the Petrobras Symphony and the Municipal Theatre Orchestra: “The horn is tiring to play and in the orchestra plays a lot more than the other brasses; it is frequent to have an extra player sit with the first horn to help him in some of the tiring “tutti” sections before a big solo…..The horn frequently goes up to the 16th harmonic where the notes are close together and valves do not help that much, the pitches are selected by tiny variations in lip tension. To put it bluntly, whereas a pianist can “see” the note he is playing on the keyboard, the horn player has to sing the note in his head and “feel” the note on his lips hoping that the right note will sound. He can never be 100% sure of the first note!”

For the composer, however, the horn is great – big range, with big changes in tone quality possible. Philip again: “composers …. tend to overwrite for it and the player has to play in different styles by changing his sound to adapt from say, Baroque “clarino” writing to aggressive Stravinsky-like percussive playing. All this must be done with taste and knowledge acquired from experience. In the orchestra the horn must play with the same intensity as the brasses, the refinement of the woodwinds and blend with the strings when needed”.

Mozart, Leutgeb and Tuckwell
Mozart began writing for the solo horn in 1781, specifically for his friend Joseph Leutgeb, who Mozart knew from the Court Orchestra in Salzberg days, and who ran a cheesemonger’s shop in Vienna. In those days, however, the valved horns were unknown, and Leutgeb had to get the notes different from the natural harmonics by muting with his hand. By all accounts, he was a master of the instrument – while Mozart was a master of writing for it, producing such interesting scores exploiting the qualities of the instrument. They were also apparently buddy-buddies, Mozart peppering his sketch for K514 with comments in Italian such as “it’s your turn now, Mr Donkey, quick” – “courage” – “what terrible intonation” – “well done, poor fellow”. Although there were apparently six Horn Concertos, today only three (known as Nos 2, 3, and 4) are complete, while the rest are fragments. This CD has them all.

Barry Tuckwell is an Australian, who began his career there, but moved to Europe in 1950, at 19 years of age. After being principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra (and later its Chairman) for 18 years, he took up a highly successful international career as horn soloist, chamber musician, conductor and teacher. He is one of the most respected horn players of all time, and has recorded probably more than any other player. Today, contemporary composers write music for the horn for him.

So now, go to track 1 on the CD and…..

Good listening!