BEN JACKS (horn soloist)
BARRY TUCKWELL (conductor)
The Queensland Orchestra; Orchestra Victoria
MELBA RECORDINGS MR 301117
Damase: Concerto pour cor et orchestre (1995)
1. Moderato (6.08)
2. Allegro scherzando (2.23)
3. Andante (4.07)
4. Allegro vivace (3.36)
Koechlin: Poeme pour cor et orchestre (1927)
5. Moderato, tres simplement et avec souplesse (5.44)
6. Andante, tres tranquille, presque adagio (4.02)
7. Final, assez anime cependant (4.38)
8. Damase: Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestra* (1987) (14.40)
9. Dukas/Terracini: Villanelle** (1906) (6.19)
10. Saint-Saens: Morceau de Concert pour cor et orchestra (1887) (8.47)
11. Marshall-Hall: Phantasy for horn and orchestra (1905) (10.18)
*world premier recording **ditto, in this version
Despite knowing Barry Tuckwell – the horn player with ‘golden’ bel canto – retired from solo performing in the late 1990’s, one still, albeit momentarily, immediately and nostalgically thinks one will hear his magic at work on any new disc devoted to horn music (and bearing his name on the cover). But this latest Melba Recording shows his magic at work as a conductor (of The Queensland Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria) as he provides
steadfast support and subtle interaction with another horn player: Ben Jacks. A changing of the guard perhaps?
Not Quite. However it could be forgiven for assuming there would be, at least stylistically, a similarity between Barry Tuckwell, in his peerless days, and Ben Jacks, who has just crossed the starting line. There would be an ‘en rapport’ of the minds. But Jacks is no Barry Tuckwell. His style, approach and his sense of shading are altogether different. It might be argued that his technique doesn’t, as yet, have the satin finish or fluency of the master but, as this disc so nicely projects, Jacks has a fine talent which will mature technically as it continues to assert its stamp of individuality. Moreover, it is a bit unfair to compare a present-day aspirant to a legend.
The disc leaves little room for equivocation about its target audience, which happens to be the bulk of the concert-going audience. It does, however, seem a pity to bring together all this Australian flair and dexterity in the service of so much tonal or quasi-tonal French music. One began to sense a distinct lack of music which possesses true rhythmic edge and harmonic bite, so to speak. For example, the opening item – ‘Concerto pour cor et orchestre’ by Damase – was written in 1995 but, for the most part, would probably have been considered passé in 1895!
Damase has made much of his “sincerity” in composition…as he turns his back on Messiaen, Boulez and even ‘Les Six’. It isn’t his sincerity one would question in this concerto (or his orchestration, which is impeccably textbook) but his mode of telling, which is anachronistic to the point of aristocratic aloofness. Even the developments of Debussy, who, incidentally, won the Prix de Rome just 63 years prior to Damase’s bestowal, are ignored.
Having to perform a score which is weak in design and stereotypical in language doesn’t appear to have detracted from Jacks’ excellent moulding of phrases or displaying flexibility of timbre, nor a listener from appreciating these qualities in his playing. The ‘Moderato’ movement is the longest of the four by a considerable amount, in French horn terms. But at no point could one fault the soloist’s approach. Similarly, the orchestra, while giving him both fine support and balanced interaction, was beautifully unified and technically copperplate.
The ‘Andante’ (third movement) afforded Jacks the opportunity to display his excellent breath control through extended lines. He always reserved just sufficient to neatly complete the passage. Nor did he lose the characteristic warm, dark beauty of tone over a surprisingly wide range (a true Tuckwell hallmark). One was also struck by the orchestra’s rich, Philadelphia-honeyed tone: Romantic music’s soul mate!
The ‘Allegro’ movements of the concerto were brief to an extent that made one ponder why it is that ultra-traditionalist composers appear to experience difficulty sustaining a fast paced musical discourse. Whatever the reason, such an architecturally frail structure doesn’t give the soloist a chance to show a sense of large scale thinking in his performance. As more and more fiercely competitive and gifted younger soloists come forward, the more and more one is hearing such questionable nooks and crannies of the repertoire and, consequently, the more one finds oneself writing how impossible it is to critique a performer’s ability to negotiate overall dynamic form. And this is a case in point.
This recording also contains Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestre’, commissioned by Barry Humphries and premiered, in 1986, with Tuckwell as soloist. There’s a lot to remark on those facts alone; not the least of which is why Humphries, who I wouldn’t have thought of being that much of a traditionalist, commissioned a Frenchman and why, specifically, Damase. Perhaps what is more consequential is the programmatic outline of the commission: “inspired by the ocean and the atmosphere of the coast”.
Programmatic music depends entirely on who listens to it – a detail some composers and most audiences, in a moment of wistfulness, seem to forget. Generally the composer provides a few ‘shared’ musical archetypes to help guide the imagination, but there are no motivic antecedents or dynamic rises and falls or even the plaintive cry of some seabird in Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie’. In fact, there are so many gestures – unrelated gestures – all jostling for face-room and for no ostensible reason, that one wonders what’s holding the music together…apart from stylistic clichés.
And it pains the heart to realise that Ben Jacks’ excellent perception of sound colour is using this music as its showcase. The score certainly requires considerable dexterity of the soloist and, in that sense only, Jacks executes such difficult passages with admirable panache and security. It would be a delight to round off this compliment by mentioning the soloist’s ability to punctuate the texture with precision and poise but, as the music hasn’t a skerrick of rhythmic vitality, it is impossible to do so.
Paul Dukas’ ‘Villanelle’ (orchestrated by Paul Terracini) is, compositionally, more successful. This is somewhat at odds with the fact that it was written as a competition piece (for horn and piano). True to its purpose, it contains almost every conceivable technical snorter and arabesque. But the musical thread is maintained while traversing the minefield.
In this performance, the horn and orchestra (much to the arranger’s credit) combine to find a depth of interplay that one wouldn’t expect to come across in a work designed, primarily, to winnow competitors. They convincingly balance the performance to give the final climax its proper emphasis. Jacks sure-footedly, but never hastily, negotiates the difficulties with notable élan.
While the recording has other works – each portraying a different view of late French Romanticism – it is Marshall-Hall’s ‘Phantasy for horn and orchestra’ that stands out as an oddity. Its aberrance lies, firstly, in the fact that it was written by an Englishman (an Englishman living and teaching in Australia) and, secondly, the intrigue surrounding his life.
In purely musical terms, the ‘Phantasy’, despite displaying some fairly interesting and slightly quirky Wagnerian harmonies, lets the listener’s mind wander when it shouldn’t. Also, unless I’m shamefully mistaken, Jacks doesn’t quite reach a few of the lowest notes with the same degree of confidence he has shown elsewhere on the disc. To call this a ‘minor offence’ – words with which Marshall-Hall would, I’m sure, agree – would be an over-reaction.
This is a disc which shows class and finery in all aspects of production. If you enjoy your music with every note glowing in Romantic French splendour then this is your type of recording. While you relish its lyricism and sentimentality, spare a moment to realise these younger Australian musicians are, steadily and confidently, attempting to try on the mantles of master performers. It’s a journey in process, as this album shows.
Stuart Hille 2009.
N.B. The information leaflet, which isn’t one of those ‘struggle to pull out/can’t push back booklets’, is to be lauded. Its author, John Humphries, plots the history of the evolution of the horn and relates it to the music being offered. He should start ‘how to’ classes in leaflet writing because, in this instance, his notes are exemplary.
Stuart Hille 2009.