|Review by larsmusik September 23, 2015 (2 of 2 found this review helpful)
|It is a delight to hear the music on this new collection, more of a pleasure than its rather prosaic title might imply. The early Romantic era is still not that well known to many music lovers; we tend to associate it with Beethoven, Schubert, perhaps Mendelssohn. And that’s the end of it. The rich background of secondary artists from whom the giants drew much in terms of new gestures, textures, and harmonic twists may be explored profitably for its own sake. Here is music by Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838), Franz Danzi (1763–1826), and Nikolaus von Krufft (1779–1818) that bears repeated listening, even though it consists entirely of sonatas for horn and piano.
Especially because it consists of horn sonatas, in fact! This was the last great heyday for the so-called natural horn, a horn without valves and capable only of key changes via cumbersome switching-out of “crooks,” varying lengths of coiled brass tubing that allowed for easier production of fundamentals and related diatonic scale notes. Chromaticism, ever more the province of expressive musicians as the 19th century wore on, was mainly accomplished with hand-stopping in the bell, which tended to alter the color of the resulting pitch — sometimes to a disconcerting degree. The rough-and-ready association of the horn with its historic hunting and military functions was never far off.
All this can be heard, for example, in Ries’s Grande Sonate in F, op. 34. Ries hailed from a celebrated family of German musicians. His father had been one of Beethoven’s teachers in Bonn and when Ries arrived in Vienna, Beethoven helped him get settled. In time Ries became well known as a piano virtuoso, touring widely and composing prolifically (mainly for the piano) all the while. His technical brilliance as a performer is undoubtedly reflected in the Grande Sonate’s sparkling accompaniments, ably handled here by fortepianist Kristin Fossheim. It takes a few moments to become accustomed to the near-constant shower of notes that Ries provides her: such sprays and garlands connote superficiality to modern listeners, but they were as necessary as air to the early Romantics, who sought to portray the profusion of enchanted landscapes by all means at their disposal. When Ries does assign the keyboardist sterner stuff, as with a fugato passage in the finale, Fossheim shows that she’s clearly up to the task.
Against this flowery backdrop, hornist Steinar Granmo Nilsen strikes a vivid series of heroic poses — fanfares, posthorn calls, military tattoos, and lyric passages not lacking in virile confidence as well. He seems fully at home with the natural horn’s inherent strengths and limitations, and as a result the listener can relax and enjoy the music. Together horn and piano evoke the pantheistic world of the early Romantics, who were more likely to find God in the beauties of the countryside than in a church building.
All these sonatas are shaped in three movements. The first is always the longest and formally most substantial; usually a Classic sonata form is evident, “opened out” with dramatic or picturesque turns à la Schubert. The middle movement is the shortest, an Andante or Larghetto serving as a respite before the work plunges into a Rondo finale, sometimes evoking a hunt scene once again.
Danzi’s Sonate in E, op. 28 (from 1804, the year of Beethoven’s “Eroica”) begins with an imposing slow introduction marked by a series of calls in which the horn repeatedly descends into its low register — very impressive, very Romantic. The development section features intriguing minor-key episodes reminding us that as a theatre composer and intendant, Danzi befriended the young Carl Maria von Weber and took an active interest in the newest trends in opera. This sonata’s slow movement offers music of real substance, and the finale — although shortest of the three — features delightful interplay between horn and piano.
Von Krufft’s 1812 Sonate in E may be the most technically demanding of the three works. Especially in its first movement, it continually pushes against the “nature” of the natural horn. Its slow movement reveals unexpected, tragic depth of feeling, while its finale returns to the brilliant style of the opening movement. This composer, known mainly for his songs, was clearly a gifted musician whose sensitivity could animate other genres as well.
I listened briefly to these performers’ earlier recording, also for 2L, of the Beethoven sonata for horn and piano, and was struck by how much better the present recording is from an engineering standpoint alone. Balance between the two instruments is now aligned in a more satisfying manner (each has its own acoustic “space”) and the horn in particular is caught in all its varied timbres and dynamic extremes without any distortion.
Both musically and in audio terms, Early Romantic Horn Sonatas is an extremely enjoyable recording.
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