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Jane VIGNERY (1913-1974)
Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 7 (1943) [17:57]
Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b. 1958)
Concert Étude for Horn Solo (2000) [6:58]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Andante for Horn and Piano, Op. posth (1888) [4:22]
Jörg WIDMANN (b. 1973)
Air for Horn Solo (2005) [7:39]
Franz STRAUSS (1822-1905)
Empfindungen am Meere, Op. 12 (1871/72?) [4:43]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sonata for Horn and Piano in F major (1939) [17:21]
Tillmann Höfs (horn)
Akiko Nikami (piano)
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 2018
GENUIN GEN18615 [59:04]

Tillman Höfs, a young German hornist, was winner of the 2017 German Music Competition (Deutscher Musikwettbewerb) and this is his debut recording. He is interviewed in the disc’s booklet at some length and indicates the thought that went into the programme for this CD. From viewing the contents it is obvious not only of the variety of works, but also a certain symmetry where the two longest pieces, partnered with piano, begin and conclude the programme. In between there are two contemporary solo works, and two staples from the Romantic period with piano accompaniment. This makes for a most satisfying hour of horn music.

Höfs clearly has the chops for this music and some of it is indeed challenging. Most familiar to me are the Richard Strauss and Hindemith works, but I found all of the pieces at least very interesting. Jane Vignery is a composer new to me. The CD booklet, while containing the rather lengthy interview with the hornist and adequate information on both Höfs and pianist Akiko Nikami, lacks anything about the pieces with the exception of Widmann’s Air. Instead there is more than enough about the competition where Höfs received his award.

Vignery, a Belgian, came from a very musical family and studied with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, among others. Although she composed in a number of musical forms, this is her only work for horn. This enjoyable sonata shows its French influence, especially in the second movement’s melancholy song. Here I hear both Franck and Dukas, while the light and tuneful finale is almost Poulencian with its jocular melodies. The first movement opens with fanfares followed by stopped passages and chromatic figures. The piano part is no mere accompaniment, either, providing a truly collaborative role with the horn. The excellent performance here should gain the work new fans and hopefully will appear more often on horn recitals.

The two Romantic staples by father and son Strauss make for pleasant interludes, while the two modern pieces provide much in the way of virtuosity for the horn as well as interest for the listener. Salonen’s Concert Étude puts the hornist through his paces, covering the full range of the horn and containing everything from stopped and bent tones to multiphonics, where the hornist sings into the instrument while simultaneously playing his instrument. The piece must be quite a challenge for the horn player. I’m not sure of its staying power as pure music, whereas I found the Widmann Air in some ways the most stimulating of all the works on the disc. As Höfs explains in his interview, Air is “unbelievably complex” and pushes the horn player to “technical extremes wherever there is musical tension.” The soloist has to stand in front of an open grand piano whose pedal is held down throughout the work. This creates a resonating, echo effect that creates a somewhat strange, but memorable impression. As with the Salonen piece, Air requires stopped notes and, near the end, multiphonics. In addition, Widmann has the hornist play “natural tones,” which create the sensation of being out of tune reminiscent of Britten’s use of such in his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. The piece, though, really works for me and is more than just a virtuosic romp. Höfs nails the work, as he does everything on the programme.

The disc concludes with what is generally considered the greatest work for horn and piano of the past century. It sounds like typical middle-period Hindemith, just before he emigrated to the United States. Cast in three movements, Hindemith’s Horn Sonata is basically tonal, but not diatonic. All twelve tones are freely employed in his melodies, which are non-triadic and contain much chromaticism and wide intervals. However, they always land on the tonic at the close of each movement. The piano has a major role to play here, just as it has in the Vignery sonata. I would argue, though, that Hindemith’s Sonata for Alto Horn and Piano, which is normally played on the French horn, is every bit as good as this piece and in its four movements contains more variety than the Horn Sonata. Nonetheless, Höfs and Nikami make as strong a case for this work as I have ever heard.

In every way, Tillmann Höfs shows tremendous promise. The only criticism I have, and it is slight, is that Höfs is recorded rather too close to the microphone in comparison with the piano. When he is playing forte his big tone can be a bit overpowering. Otherwise, it is nicely rich and full. I look forward to hearing more from him. For example, a disc of horn concertos, say, Hindemith’s and those of Richard Strauss, would be a tantalizing proposition.

Leslie Wright


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