ABC Classics 481 1244
Reviewed by Alistair Noble, July 1st, 2015
This recital album is a wonderful piece of work, featuring the English horn virtuoso Anneke Scott and the Australian ensemble Ironwood. In several respects, this recital is a very fine advertisement for the value of performance-oriented musicology (when it is done well). Scott’s own researches into the horn repertoire of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, together with investigation of the important horn players and teachers of this time, their instruments, and the techniques of playing, are not only fascinating to read but inform and enliven every note of her performances recorded here.
Ironwood and its members are well known to Australian audiences for their lively and creative performances of the music of earlier times, thoroughly ‘historically informed’, as the politically correct phrase goes. Many of the individual members of the group are also active members of other ensembles and orchestras in Australia and internationally. Ironwood’s playing is very nice—yet the uncontested star of this CD is Anneke Scott, whose playing is almost miraculous in technique; vigorous and vibrant. Most important for this repertoire, however, is her extraordinary understanding and fluent mastery of the most impeccably appropriate sensibility of phrasing, for which this recording serves as a master-class. She makes of the horn an instrument that is very far from the hunting and military cliché—instead, we find ourselves in the presence of a voice that is lyrical, intimately expressive and intelligently authoritative.
The primary inspiration for this voice is one Jan Václav Stich (1746-1803) who performed under the alias of Giovanni Punto (he was a runaway serf, so the name-change was not mere vanity). Punto was the leading exponent and developer of the ‘hand-stopping’ technique that allowed late 18th century natural horn players to adjust the effective tube length of their instrument by inserting the right hand into the bell. The transpositions that result make available a vastly increased range of notes while also, in a happy trade-off, creating a terrific range of subtle (more or less muted) colours according to the position of the hand in the bell.
In listening to this recording, one may easily appreciate Scott’s confident, colourful playing—and yet to fully appreciate the extent of her virtuosity in recreating these 18th century techniques one must see her play in person. Her control of the natural horn (without valves or keys) is an extraordinary feat, depending upon a complex coordination of breathing, lips, and the right hand, to control not only pitch but tone-colour. Watching Scott in performance, one begins to appreciate why the early pioneers of this technique were so admired. Punto himself was quite a celebrity, counting Mozart and Beethoven among his fans, and this CD documents the flurry of international interest in composing for the horn that flowed from his achievements.
Punto was also a reasonably prolific composer, and here we may hear his Deuxieme Duo, Opus A, originally written for horn and bassoon but for this recording played with horn and cello. This is a lovely work, made up of three movements that exploit very cleverly the capabilities and textural limitations of such a duo in terms of melodic and harmonic interactions. Cellist Daniel Yeadon makes a lively partner for Scott. I would be happy to hear more of Punto’s music.
Michael Haydn’s Romance in A-flat for horn and string quartet is one of the ‘stolen beauties’ of the CD title—a work that bears a very suspicious resemblance to the slow movement of Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E-flat. In terms of chronology, it is not at all clear who wrote it first, thus we are not certain whether Haydn or Mozart was the thief. Scott suggests that Haydn may have begun the work as a concerto commission that he didn’t have time to complete and passed the job on to Mozart who recycled the Romance as his slow movement. This seems entirely plausible, given that Haydn and Mozart were close friends.
Barham Livius’ Concertante for piano, horn, viola and cello, is another curious and wonderful work which turns out to be an arrangement (almost a recomposition) of Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio for clarinet, viola and piano. Livius (1787-1865) was a horn player, composer, playwright, entrepreneur and con-man. This version of Mozart’s trio is actually an interesting work in its own right, with the ensemble skilfully re-imagined while retaining the majestic loveliness of Mozart’s original material (which seems to suit Scott’s horn playing so admirably that one imagines Mozart would approve). The horn part for this work requires a combination of natural hand technique (in Punto’s style) and passages where a two-valve sauterelle attachment is required—this latter device an innovation of the early 19th century adding not only new capabilities in terms of agility but also a broadened palette of tone colours. (The original trio was composed for another great musical pioneer, the clarinettist Anton Stadler, who gave the first performance of the work with Mozart playing viola and Mozart’s student Franziska Jacquin (1769–1850) playing piano—she was highly regarded by the composer, which says a great deal about her capability as he was a serious and demanding teacher.) In this performance, Sydney-based pianist Neal Peres Da Costa plays a crucial role, with a Walter-type Viennese action piano.
This splendid recital concludes with a relatively more familiar work, unadulterated and (presumably) not stolen, Mozart’s Quintet for horn, violin, two violas and cello. Here Scott returns to the natural horn (without sauterelle) and gives a beautiful performance that is commanding, lyrical and not without humour. The Quintet was composed for Mozart’s friend, the horn player Joseph Leitgeb, who was a frequent butt of the composer’s irreverent jokes (which included rudely Satie-esque instructions on horn parts). As Eric Bromberger has observed, “While Mozart’s sense of humor does not appear to have been cruel, it was seldom restrained by good taste…”. Leitgeb apparently took this in good grace, and the two remained close friends, supporting each other through periods of financial and personal difficulty.
This CD is a remarkable and important project, accompanied by very informative notes written by Scott herself. It introduces us to a world of music that is otherwise all too little known, and Scott’s research and prodigious playing brings to life some lovely forgotten music and also sheds new and brilliant light on composers we thought we knew. For horn enthusiasts, the sheer virtuosity of her playing is jaw-dropping. For the rest, we are seduced by the intelligence and liveliness of the music and these marvellously expressive performances.