Thursday, December 20, 2007

Horning In (with apologies to David Rakowski)

With my semester finally over – not that it's been an unusually heavy one, but still – and the Christmas choral season more or less put to bed, I'm free to put down a few ideas over the next couple of weeks. It's a nice feeling to know that, despite the fact that this blog is still mainly a way of avoiding any real academic writing, I don't have too many other pressing things that I really should be doing.

Browsing the NY Times, as I do on daily basis, I was bemused by a review of a chamber concert by Allan Kozinn. I don't usually read too many reviews unless they have to do with new music, but the mention of "horn" in the title caught my former brass-jock eye. After distancing myself from my ex-instrument for about ten years, I've suddenly found myself writing for it a lot lately, with a recent trio with violin and piano, a fanfare for three horns, and an upcoming concerto. There truly is no escape.

Anyway, Kozinn writes of the concert:

"The first oddity, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A flat (Op. 70), is a rarity for the soundest of reasons: It is scored for French horn and piano, and horn writing as expansive and exposed as this is too perilous to attract many takers. David Jolley is as good a hornist as you’ll find in New York’s chamber music world, but the Adagio largely defeated his efforts to stay firmly on pitch and avoid cracked notes."

I was uncharacteristically quick to overcome my initial, deeply ingrained bristle at the description of one of the central works of the horn repertoire – if not the Everest, than at least Anapurna or K2 – as an "oddity", one that, I might add, is regularly pilfered by many other instruments ranging from the violin, viola and cello to [shudder] the oboe. I was mostly amused by his noting that David Jolley had trouble with the Adagio movement, to which my only reaction is that nobody has an easy time with this piece, ever. Even if they do it perfectly, they nearly had a heart attack trying. I still have nightmares about the woefully exposed high C in the Adagio, and get cold sweats about running out of "face" at the end.

My friend Tommi, the most simultaneously Zen and kamikaze horn player I know, performed it last year on one of his doctoral recitals, and I nearly passed out. Literally. Listening to it, I found myself uncomfortable, tense, short of breath. Absently noticing my spasmodically clenching and unclenching left hand, I realized I was fingering the damn thing right along with him, fearing the worst as high notes approached, knowing all the spots in the Allegro where a tiny, desperate breath can be caught before diving headlong back into the fray. It really is that hard. So I tip my hat to anyone with the guts to go out and play it, legend or not. A few slips on the final ridge still gets you to the peak, right?

The other quote that caught my attention concerned the Brahms trio:

"The balance problems born of putting a horn in a small ensemble were evident as ever (here’s a piece that works better on recording), but Mr. Fleisher and Mr. Laredo were able to wrest the spotlight more often than not, and in the two fast movements, their energetic, mercurial playing was offset by Mr. Jolley’s evocation of a hunting horn, which gave the performance an agreeably earthy quality."

This is an important observation: balancing this ensemble is almost impossible. When I wrote my trio last year, it started out being a compact, nicely behaved little piece, with the horn safely in its corner, but I still ended up calibrating the whole thing in one way or another to the horn's overpowering personality. No matter how careful you are, there are always spots where the horn just buries the other two instruments, and of course, you don't get to find this out until you hear the piece. It's especially perilous in the Brahms, where the horn part is an integral part of the contrapuntal texture, every bit as important to the piece as a cello would be in one of his piano trios. This is the miracle of this work, in fact, that Brahms refused to condescend to the instrument, relegating it to a few hunting horn riffs while the violin hogs the spotlight.

It's all the more remarkable that Brahms actually specified that a natural horn (i.e. valveless) be used. The composer had a well-documented preference for the timbre of the unadorned instrument, I'm guessing because early horn valves were leaky, marring the tone, and the mechanism was noisy. However, the natural horn is a bit of a specialty these days, and the players who have truly mastered it sadly don't get heard in a high-profile settings much of the time. So hearing the Brahms trio on a modern instrument is par for the course, with all the inherent balance problems.

And yet, one has to wonder if there has indeed always been a balance issue with this piece, if it was problematic in Brahms' day as well. It turns out, I discovered fairly recently, that the answer is an emphatic "No". On another of his epic concerts this fall, Tommi performed the trio on natural horn, and decided to make it a period affair, with the violinist playing on gut strings, and an 1893 Érard piano, a rare instrument owned by the Sibelius Academy that was reconditioned for the occasion. (I have a sentimental attachment to this instrument, being the same type of piano Debussy owned, and whose veiled sound is the archetype for his late piano works.) With this ensemble, the Brahms trio sounded much gentler than one would expect. Because modifying the pitch on the natural horn requires a multitude of different hand positions in the bell, some more muffling than others, the overall tone has to be softer in order to avoid having random notes jump out of a melodic line.

The misty sound of the Érard, combined with the gut strings and the oddly distant-sounding horn, made the piece feel much more intimate, less extrovert, even in more dramatic passages, as if the music were enveloped in a warm, sepia glow. It was like hearing an old phonograph recording, a relic of another time, when instruments weren't so loud, and one occasionally had to lean in to catch all the details. It was magical, hearing it played as Brahms might have , indeed, how he probably wanted to hear it.

The point remains: horn, violin and piano is an extremely tricky beast to write for, and composers who take it on do so at their peril. Those who have navigated it successfully often come up with original ways of working the horn into the group, like Ligeti's trio, where for much of the piece the horn inhabits its own world, or a more recent work by Marc-André Dalbavie, in which the horn is only introduced about four minutes in, a novel idea with the effect of making one initially forget that the horn was supposed to be there at all. But hearing the Brahms trio as nature intended was significant proof that the mere fact of adding a horn to an ensemble doesn't require clearing the furniture, or at least it didn't always.

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