January 05, 2006


Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns; Handel: Concerto in F Major; Telemann: Overture in F Major; Haydn: Symphony No. 31, “Horn Signal.” American Horn Quartet (Geoffrey Winter, Kerry Turner, David Johnson, Charles Putnam). Dariusz Wišniewski conducting Sinfonia Varsovia. Naxos. $7.99.

     There is something slightly overwhelming about the notion of four horns playing together.  It is fair to wonder how far beyond hunting calls it is possible to take the horn quartet.  This CD gives the answer: very far indeed.  Schumann, Handel, Telemann and Haydn were well aware of the design of the horn as a signaling instrument appropriate to the outdoors.  Schumann and Haydn, in particular, incorporated this element of horn playing into the pieces recorded here.  But all four composers took the horn quartet beyond the obvious doubling (or quadrupling) of parts and into unusual tonal realms.

     Schumann took things farthest – but then, he had the most adaptable instruments available.  The Konzertstück for Four Horns was written for valve horns, not the earlier and more limited natural horn.  The American Horn Quartet – which is equally at home with pieces written for both forms of the instrument – plays Schumann’s work for all it is worth, with brisk tempi and plenty of chances for the horns’ different melodic lines to be heard overlapping or in contrast.

     Handel’s work is the most modest here, lasting just a bit more than six minutes, but it has charm aplenty.  The music of the first, slow section is very close to that of the overture to the Royal Fireworks Music, written slightly later than this concerto.  Handel was an inveterate self-borrower and may have taken the theme, which has a strong outdoorsy feel to it, from this work.  The second part of this one-movement work is faster, and is attractively ornamented by the players in the virtuosic style typical of Handel’s time.

     Telemann’s Overture in F – one of the many suites of disconnected pieces at whose construction he was such an expert – is a fascinating and unusual work.  After the opening, itself called Overture, there are eight movements, each with a title in German referring to everyday life in the area around Hamburg’s Alster Lake.  “Das Alster-Echo,” for instance, has the expected echo effects; “Die Hamburgischen Glockenspiele” has a tick-tock rhythm that looks ahead to Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “Clock”; “Der Schwanengesang” is quiet and plaintive, befitting the song of the swan; and “Der Konzertiereden Frösche und Krähen” is highly chromatic, appropriately for a dialogue between frogs and crows.  This Overture has many charms, though it does not specifically highlight the four horns – they are merely part of its alfresco orientation.  To the credit of the American Horn Quartet – and of conductor Dariusz Wišniewski – the horns never overwhelm the rest of the instruments, simply taking their places as Telemann intended.

     Horns are not the centerpiece of Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 in D, either, despite the title “Horn Signal.”  This is one of two symphonies Haydn wrote for four horns in the early to middle 1760s, the other being the greatly misnumbered No. 72.  The opening movement and very end of No. 31 are indeed filled with horn virtuosity.  But Haydn, here as elsewhere, highlighted instrumental virtuosity throughout the orchestra, not merely in one part of it.  Thus, the finale – a set of variations that is almost as long as the other three movements put together – gives as much prominence to strings and flutes in some sections as to horns in others.  Unfortunately, the performance of the symphony is the weakest on the CD, not because of the instrumentalists – Sinfonia Varsovia is a highly talented ensemble – but because Wišniewski does not seem to have any particular overview of the music.  The notes are well played, but the conductor does nothing to shape the work, which as a result sounds meandering.  Despite this flaw, this Naxos CD is an attractive one, offering an unusual chance to hear an uncommon combination of instruments, uncommonly well played.

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