Album Title: Calls - R. Schumann (Adagio & Allegro), R. Strauss (Andante für Horn und Klavier), P. Hindemith (Sonate für Horn und Klavier), C. Nielsen (Canto Serioso), S. Berge (Horn-lokk)
Performers: Kjell Erik Arnesen (horn), Jørgen Larsen (piano)
Label and #: 2L CD20 (also available as MP3 download)
Running time:
Jar church (Norway), June 2003

Continuing our exploration of 2L's truly original catalog takes us to one of my favorite instruments, the French horn. Horns have always fascinated me with their warm and brassy timbres so close to the human baritone and bass voice and without the bite a trumpet exhibits at times.
The valve horn was developed during the first half of the 19th century to enhance the technical and expressive ability of the instrument which had thus far been mostly limited to more mundane uses as a post or signal horn although Mozart or Haydn did give it the occasional spotlight in their symphonic works. But, the horn was never considered a genuine soloist instrument until the introduction of the valve variety.

Robert Schumann was one of the very first to experiment with the new instrument and left us some unique concert pieces for valve horns. The Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra is probably the most famous but the Five Songs for Male Voices and Four Horns Op. 137 are amazing as well. This disc presents Schumann's first piece dedicated to the valve horn, his Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 for horn and piano, one of the most played virtuoso compositions for the instrument which exhibits Schumann's typical romantic and singing style with intertwined melodies and extreme virtuosity.

The recording continues with an early Andante by Richard Strauss who also admired the horn throughout his life. It's a piece far more romantic in spirit than some of his later work and tremendously elegant. Moving to some heavier fare, the program then settles on Hindemith's 1939 Sonata for Horn and Piano, an emotionally loaded work composed after he fled Nazi-occupied Germany that had labeled his work "degenerate" (Entartete Kunst). The sonata is a political stand against oppression and once more the uncanny similarity between the horn and deep male voice is exploited to carry an angry call.

Nielsen's Canto Serioso was actually an audition piece for the 2
nd and 4th low-register horns in the Royal Danish Orchestra to exploits the deeper range of the horn in an interesting and highly melodic dialog with the piano. Rounding up these horn calls is Sigurd Berge's reinterpretation for horn solo of a traditional Norwegian folk song (Lokk). It is a dark and almost haunting work, forcing the soloist into creating effects of distance with calls and muted responses.

Kjell-Erik Arnesen mastered his instrument brilliantly and guides us through over a century of music with intelligence and talent. I love his restraint and tremendous control over timbre and musical flow yet during virtuoso sections, he never seems to strain or be limited in any fashion, quite an accomplishment on this instrument famous for being one of the most demanding in the orchestra. Arnesen may not have the flamboyance of a Barry Tuckwell but when gravity is called for like in Hindemith's or Berge's works, his deep tonality is without peer. Jørgen Larsen provides clever support and counterpoint to Arnesen, but make no mistake, the star of this show is the horn, not the piano.

This is probably not for people looking for an introduction to classical music or even an introduction to the horn - Tuckwell's take on Mozart's Concertos for Horn is a far easier place to start. Anybody looking to truly understand this instrument however and why it fascinated so many composers over nearly two centuries now -- the subtle intonations it is capable of, its tremendous emotional dimension and its unique voice -- will find this recording to do just that.