Le cor mélodique

Le cor mélodique
Mélodies, Vocalises & Chants by Gounod, Meifred & Gallay
Anneke Scott & Steven Devine
Resonus Classics RES10228. 75’57

The horn must have a claim to have one of the longest and most complex histories of all musical instruments, with the exception of the flute and the human voice. From the Scandinavian Lur (dating back some 12,000 years, and surviving today in the form of the crest on packs of butter), ancient animal horns (surviving today as the Jewish Shofar), via the Byzantine Oliphant, the Roman Cornu, and hunting and military horns came the gradual absorption into art music during the 17th century. Initially, these were valveless instruments only capable of playing very restricted notes but time and the addition of plumbing and valves gave the orchestral instrument a much greater range, but at some cost to the distinctive sound of the naturally produced notes of the harmonic scale, modified only by the mouth and hand of the player. In this recording, horn specialist Anneke Scott explores one of the developmental stages of the horn: the mid-19th-century transition from the natural to the piston horn, using three horns and three playing techniques, each related to the specific ideas of the composers.

The music (published 1839-41) is in an attractive early to mid-Romantic style. and the recording and playing emphasise this, together with its essential chamber quality. Despite being recorded in a large hall (the Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham), the slight acoustic bloom is appropriate, as is the balance between horn and piano. This recording also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Charles Gounod’s birth, whose Six Mélodies pour cor à pistons et piano form an appropriate introduction to his youthful style. The two other groups of pieces are the Dix Vocalises by Auguste Mathieu Panseron and Marco Bordogni included in Joseph-Émile Meifred’s Méthode pour le cor chromaque ou à pistons and Jacques-François Gallay’s Les Chants du Cœur: Six Mélodies favorites de François Schubert. The piano is an 1851 Érard grand piano, made in London and now in the University of Birmingham.

Three different horns and playing techniques are used. The Gounod and Meifred pieces use a c1840, a two-valved Guichard horn using techniques promoted by the composers. The Gallay Chants du Cœur use an 1823 cor solo natural horn from Oxford’s Bate Collection, the same model of horn as that awarded to Gallay when he won first prize at the Paris Conservatoire.

The Paris Conservatoire maintained the tradition of teaching the natural horn) into the early twentieth century, and this recording finishes with a very late example of the genre, Brémond’s 1893 transcription of the Gounod song À La Nuit, composed in 1891 shortly before his death). The transcription was written for the three–valved instrument but, tellingly, also makes use of the distinctive ‘stopped’ notes of the natural horn, something that both Gounod and Meifred would have appreciated. It is played on a three-valved piston horn dating from c1862 (with later amendments) from Anneke Scott’s own collection.

The detailed notes, in English only, make fascinating reading, not least in the reaction to the introduction of valves from those who relished the distinctive sound of the natural horn – “Valve horn players were warned against using the valves constantly and thus losing the opportunity to incorporate aspects of hand-horn stopping technique. The timbral differences of the natural horn, with its open and stopped notes, has been viewed as part of its unique expressive range. These effects were something to be championed, a desirable aspect of the instrument’s ‘melancholic nature’, rather than something to suppress or hide.“. The CD booklet can be read here and there is an expanded and illustrated essay, with video examples, on Anneke Scott’s website here.

Although this recording might, at first sight, seem of interest only to lovers of the horn, the music it contains is attractive and approachable. It is played with consummate sensitivity and elegance by Anneke Scott and Stephen Devine. It will appeal whether or not you have any interest in the mechanics of the instruments.