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Paris 1804
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Two Sonatas for Horn, with accompaniment: No.1 [2:15]; No.2 [7:07]
Louis François DAUPRAT (1781-1868)
Quintet, Op.6 No.3 [30:04]
Anton REICHA (1770-1836)
Grand Quintet, Op.106 [29:40]
Alessandro Denabian (natural horn)
Quartetto Delfico
rec. 2016, Auditorium Montis Regalis, Mondovi, Italy
PASSACAILLE 1032 [69:15]

For the music-lover, the fascinating thing about this disc is to hear 19th century French repertory played on the kind of horn for which it was conceived, by a player who is a particularly adept master at the instrument, and supported by a string quartet which has got the idiom of this music thoroughly under its collective skin. On a wider, level, however, this disc offers a very unusual view of a period in European history which we normally associate with stress, conflict and disharmony.

In Paris on 2nd December 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame. We recognise the musical significance of that date principally as the trigger for Beethoven’s outburst in relation to his Third Symphony, and while, as the booklet notes with this fascinating CD point out, “the works included here have very little to do with the event itself”, this programme does offer a glimpse into the kind of music being written in those tumultuous years in which Paris, France and, indeed, much of Europe (if not the world) were aflame with revolutionary fervour. More than all that, the disc reveals something of the equally revolutionary changes which were going on in Parisian musical life at the same time.

All three composers were fundamentally affected by Napoleon and his European campaigns, and all three came together at a famous institution which was created at a time when Napoleon’s empirical ambitions were at their height; The Paris Conservatoire. Cherubini was its first Director, Reicha was a professor of harmony, and Reicha’s pupil, Dauprat, was not only one of its first horn students (the first to be awarded the premier prix for horn) but went on to become one of its most important professors of horn.

The horn itself was undergoing a major revolution of its own, although the Parisian school of horn playing held out longer than most against the revolutionary idea of introducing valves to help place chromatic notes which were not part of the instrument’s natural harmonic sequence. Dauprat was one of the first to write a method for playing the Cor à pistons, and helped set up a class at the Conservatoire for training on the new instrument, even though he himself is never known to have played a valved horn in public. His own music, like that of Cherubini and Reicha, was intended for the natural horn; an instrument limited to the notes of its own harmonic sequence but which, through deft use of right hand stopping of the bell and manipulations of the embouchure, could – given a highly gifted player – achieve a remarkable range of notes across a two-octave spectrum. As the booklet suggest, this “could be perilous indeed”, and an issue which all natural horns have to address is achieving some kind of stability of tone whilst being continually muted by the right hand. When you hear a natural horn player as brilliantly capable of this technique as Alessandro Denabian, you begin to understand why the Parisians held out so long against valved horns.

Cherubini’s two one-movement Sonatas (probably better described as “Etudes”) were written in Paris in 1804 and both are familiar to hornists and well represented in the catalogues in performances using both valved and natural horns. Heard here with a string quartet accompaniment – and it is impressive how this Italian quartet matches the 19th century feel of the natural horn with their own largely vibrato-free 19th century playing style – the operatic character of the music is well conveyed, the leisurely 1st Sonata and the slow introduction to the 2nd Sonata suitably poised with the recitative-like horn passages splendidly paced. The ensuing Allegro moderato is an impressive display of virtuosity from Denabian, his cadenza a wonderful dramatic display full of trills and clever use of tone colour. Most impressive are his scales, which only rarely give an aural hint of all the work being done by the right hand inside the instrument’s bell.

At over 30 minutes’ duration, Dauprat’s Quintet gives us a much more expansive taste of the natural horn and string quartet combination, and since Dauprat himself was a leading horn virtuoso, the music is clearly written with the potential and practicalities of the instrument well in mind. This is much more concert music than the Cherubini Sonatas, and while it offers nothing startlingly original nor anything in the way of really memorable themes or musical ideas, it is fascinating to hear how democratic it all is; this is music from a child of the French Revolution, in whom the ideas of social hierarchy are less firmly entrenched. In fact this is very much a quintet with all five instruments equal in musical material and interest. That in itself is a fascinating thing, for the natural horn, with its very limited range of notes, might not seem a natural partner for the stringed instruments, yet through deft use of melodic lines and harmony, Dauprat places the horn as very much the equal of the strings. Indeed there are passages in the first movement where the horn seems almost to be imitating violin figurations. The work was intended for the E flat horn (cor-basse), which means that it inhabits the lower register of the instrument. This is a performance which showcases Denabian’s astonishing command of the techniques required to cover the entire chromatic range with minimal unevenness of tone, while Quartett Delfico again manage to convey through their vibrato-less playing the sound world of early 19th century France.

Anton Reicha was an exact contemporary and childhood acquaintance of Beethoven (they were probably fellow-pupils of C G Neefe). When Haydn visited Bonn, he heard Reicha perform, but chose to offer lessons only to Beethoven, leaving Reicha in Bonn from here he fled to Hamburg before the French invaded the town. He then went to Vienna, renewed his acquaintanceship with both Beethoven and Haydn, and came associated with the Imperial Palaces, where he wrote a cantata for Empress Marie Therese. He was in Vienna when Napoleon invaded in 1805, and met Cherubini, who was among Napoleon’s retinue. He went to Leipzig, but suffered due to the French blockade of that town, so, in 1808, he settled in Paris. He became famous in Paris for his teaching, so much so that after several of his former pupils were given professorial appointments at the Conservatoire, he was invited to join the staff in 1818. He produced what is regarded as the first formal classroom textbook on harmony, and began to take an increasing interest in writing music for wind instruments. He produced five quintets each featuring a different wind instrument and intended for his colleagues at the Conservatoire. The Horn Quintet is dedicated to Dauprat and was published in 1828.

Musically it is probably the most stimulating and interesting work on the disc, opening with a sprightly Allegro with the horn very much taking the lead and shining brightly on this recording above the string quartet. The players have a wonderful sense of involvement in this movement, pressing it on with great energy and spirit; an aspect underlined by the choice to dispense with the optional double bass part. Denabian’s ability to produce a lyrical, legato line across the various hand-stopping/embouchure manipulations is beautifully revealed in the Quintet’s slow movement, which also traverses the full range of the natural horn. The only moment on the disc where the horn’s hunting field associations bubble to the surface is the buoyant third movement Minuet, but this elegant and refined music is so much more than just a succession of hunting-type horn calls, and demands a truly accomplished player to pass easily over its many technical hurdles. The work, and the disc, ends with a bustling finale, delivered here with an arresting combination of stylistic integrity, intuitive musicianship and a vivid sense of enjoyment.

Marc Rochester



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