The Early Horn

The Early Horn
Ursula Paludan Monberg
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68289. 78’32

One of the most astonishing developments in musical instrument technology came with the elevation of the horn from its role a rather elemental rallying call to 17th-century aristocratic huntsmen to a sophisticated member of 18th-century court orchestras and chamber groups. One of the key aspects of this development was the technique of hand-stopping to alter the pitch. This was combined with the division of the 15 or so feet of tubing of the wound hunting horn into two parts, the smaller changeable crock allowing for changes of key. This recording explores the wide range of music composed for the natural horn during the 18th-century. Continue reading

Steinitz Bach Players 50th

London Bach Society’s Bachfest 2018
Steinitz Bach Players, Rodolfo Richter
St John’s, Smith Square, 6 November 2918

For the fourth and final day of their 2018 Bachfest, the London Bach Society (LBS) celebrated the 50th anniversary of their own orchestra, the Steinitz Bach Players, with this St John’s, Smith Square concert. The orchestra was founded, along with the London Bach Society, by Paul Steinitz (1909-88), one of the pioneers of the British Bach revival. Made up of leading freelance period instrumentalists, the orchestra performs under different directors during the annual Bachfest. On this occasion, they performed without a conductor, but with direction from the violin by Rodolfo Richter, a practice that I am sure Bach himself would have approved of.   Continue reading

BBC Prom 74: Handel – Theodora

Handel: Theodora
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2018

Of all Handel oratorios, the one that is probably most likely to put you off Christianity (or put you even further off Christianity) is Theodora. Set during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, the story is of two love-struck Christians who refuse to honour the Roman gods, and then vie with each other as to which of them is to be put to death as a result, each insisting on taking the place of the other until the exasperated Valens, President of Antioch, has them both sent to their heaven. It was unusual for an opera or oratorio to end badly for the leading lights, which perhaps explains its lack of success at the time. The text doesn’t bear much scrutiny either, the earlier arias of the Christian contingent and their confidence that the Lord would provide protection ‘here and everywhere’,  and the chorus’s response that the Everlasting One was ‘Mighty to save in perils, storm and death’, seemed a little ill-judged in the forthcoming circumstances.   But, setting aside the silly plot, the text and music express aspects of love, religious freedom, bloody-mindedness, and the assumptions that Christians are far more musically intelligent than ‘heathens’. The latter is a particular feature of Handel’s music, with the choir switching between Heathen and Christian to distinctly different music, the former generally rather four-square, clumpy, and harmonically unadventurous, the latter tuneful and svelte.  Continue reading

Forgotten Vienna: Amadè Players – St John’s, Smith Square

Forgotten Vienna: Amadè Players.
St John’s, Smith Square, 31 March 2015
Carl Ditters Concerto for Two Violins in C, Anon (Not-Haydn) Concerto for Horn in D, Johann Baptist Waṅhal  Symphony in aRequiem in E flat.
Dominika Fehér & George Clifford, violins, Ursula Paludan Monberg, natural horn, Amadè Players, Nicholas Newland, director, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Eighteenth century Vienna attracted many émigré musicians from Hungary, the Czech lands of Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia, and other smaller city states within the Hapsburg Empire.  Alongside composers such as Mozart and Haydn, they were important contributors to the development of the classical style during the mid to late 18th century. They included the composers Ditters and Waṅhal, the focus for the concert by the Amadè Players (St John’s Smith Square, 31 March 2015).  Both were known to have to have played in a string quartet with Haydn and Mozart, so were clearly a key part of Viennese musical life.  ‘AKA’ was a bit of a sub-plot of the impressively detailed programme notes – Ditters is usually referred to as ‘Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’ (his post 1773 ennoblement name), while Waṅhal was also known as Vanhal, Vaňhal, Vanhall, Wanhall, Wannhall or Van Hall.

An extension of the post-doctoral research interests of the Amadè Players’ director, Nicholas Newland, the programme featured the British premières of Ditters’ Ccncerto for two violins (c1762) and Waṅhal’s Symphony in A minor (c1769) as well as the world première of the latter’s Requiem Mass in E flat, the second and smaller of the two Requiems he wrote in memory of his parents. A rather better-known piece came with the Horn Concerto in D, formally listed as being by Haydn, but now thought to be by one of a pair of Bohemian composers.

Dominika FehérAppropriately, given the programme’s focus, the opening double violin concerto featured an excellent young Hungarian violinist Dominika Fehér (right).  She was joined by the equally impressive George Clifford, concertmaster of the Amadè Players. During the 1760s, Ditters was listed as violin soloist more than any other player in Vienna, and it is assumed that this work was written for him to perform, perhaps with his brother. The original manuscript includes his written cadenzas. It is an attractive work, with idiomatic violin writing, even if some of the figuration and harmonic movement is slightly predictable. Both players complimented each other well, notably in the central slow movement where they moved in parallel.

The not-Haydn Horn Concerto was given an extraordinary performance by the Danish Ursula Paludan Monberg_cropUrsula Paludan Monberg (left). I have raved about her playing in Early Music Review, notably after an exquisite performance of the notorious Quoniam tu solis from Bach’s B minor Mass in Bach’s own Leipzig Thomaskirche (with the English Concert, in 2012)  and last year’s performance of Handel’s Theodora at the Barbican. Despite having to hobble on stage on crutches with a broken foot, she was on top form playing the notoriously tricky natural horn. I was particularly impressed with her control of tone, using her hand in the horn’s bell – a technique that had only just been introduced at the time of this piece.  She played her own cadenzas, giving herself a monumental task, not least in the range of the notes, including what I think must be the lowest note I have ever heard played on a natural form.

After the interval, the orchestra expanded to include oboes and horns for the Waṅhal Symphony in a. Dr Charles Burney wrote that Waṅhal’s “symphonies had afforded me such uncommon pleasure, that I should not hesitate to rank them among the most complete and perfect compositions for many instruments, which the art of music can boast”. I am not sure if I would be quite so complimentary, but this example was certainly an impressive work. Despite the presence of four horns, they were only really used to fill out chords until a couple of flourishes towards the end of the bustling final movement.

The concert finished with Waṅhal’s E flat Requiem Mass, a relatively short work with an attractively lyrical Lux Aeterna. The choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge made an impressively coherent sound. It is possible that this was written during (or for) one of Waṅhal’s periodic visits to the Croatian city of Varaždin, one of the seats of the Counts Erdödy and, between 1756 and the disastrous fire of 1776, the capital of Hapsburg Croatia. As it happens, my main exposure to Waṅhal’s music has been during my visits to the Varaždin Baroque Evenings festivals – I have been a member of the festival jury, and have given several organ recitals there. Varaždin’s imposing Stari Grad fortress contains a portrait of Waṅhal, and the baroque Erdödy Palace is now the Varaždin School of Music.

A CD with the same title, Forgotten Vienna, will be released later this year on the Resonus Classics label.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/05/forgotten-vienna-amade-players-st-johns-smith-square/]