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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Konzertstück, Op.86 [17:20]
Adagio and Allegro, Op.70 (orch. Ernest Ansermet) [7:40]
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Morceau de Concert, Op.94 [9:01]
Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956)
Horn Concerto, Op.91 [23:46]
Markus Maskuniitty (horn)
Martin Schӧpfer, Kristofer Ӧberg, Monica Berenguer Caro (horns)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2016/18, Konserthuset, Stockholm, Sweden.
ONDINE ODE1339-2 [59:08]

The French Horn retained the distinct national styles of playing long after most other instruments had adopted a standard international sound. True enough, modern horn players do tend to adapt their tone to suit the repertory they play, but that uniquely American sound and the equally distinct British one are now long-distant memories, and you have to delve deep into the Melodiya back-catalogue to hear that gloriously saxophone-like vibrancy of Soviet players. Vestiges of the national sound do remain, however, and the Finnish horn player Markus Maskuniitty produces a distinct sound which is very much in the Nordic tradition of horn playing; best described as a kind of iron fist in a thin velvet glove, the sound having an almost brittle focus, its sharp edges only slightly muffled by a thin layer of fuzziness.

While this is Maskuniitty’s debut solo disc, the CD actually opens with him in ensemble with three of his fellow hornists in a scintillating performance of Schumann’s unique Konzertstück for four horns. What fun these four players are having. They romp through the work, fearlessly brushing aside its technical challenges and breasting its surging tide of complexity with Wagnerian imperiousness. It does not pretend to be anything other than four players on modern instruments having a ball together, and while you may look elsewhere for performances which attempt some kind of historical or contextual credibility, you will search in vain for a more wholeheartedly enjoyable performance. There are stunning moments of tight ensemble, and the sense of communication between the four players is in a class of its own. Sakari Oramo and his Royal Stockholm Philharmonic can merely look on and observe while these four are clearly having the time of their lives.

Left to his own devices, Maskuniitty revels in that Finnish sound, with its quality of slightly fuzzy focus giving a distinct flavour to everything on the disc. The Schumann Adagio and Allegro, composed just a day before he started on the Konzertstück and very much a pre-curser of that larger work, has an elegant stretch about it, with surging dynamics a constant feature of Maskuniitty’s long phrases. Heard here in an orchestrated version by Ernest Ansermet, the work takes on a breadth and grandiosity which is far removed from the essential intimacy of Schumann’s original horn and piano version, but in its own right makes for highly rewarding listening.

Familiar as it is to all hornists, the opening movement of Saint-Saëns’ Morceau de Concert here assumes the character of a powerful military march, Oramo matching Maskuniitty’s propulsive articulation with vigorous and discretely balanced support. Perhaps the contrast between marcato and legato as well as between the Allegro sections and the more relaxed ones, runs dangerously close to overkill, and the bridge into the Andante feels as if it is in danger of collapsing under the weight of such an extreme rallentando, but the sheer quality of Maskuniitty’s tone (except in a rather ugly low register) and the outstanding quality of the Stockholm Philharmonic help divert attention from such interpretative excesses. The brisk final Moderato drives the work relentlessly on to its conclusion with some dazzling horn virtuosity crowning what is an unusually assertive performance of this staple of the repertory.

The Glière Concerto stands as the first horn concerto by a Russian composer, and was written with the distinct sound of the Soviet hornist Valery Polekh in mind. Listening to Polekh’s own recording with the Bolshoi Orchestra under the composer, that horn sound is so dramatically different from that which Maskuniitty produces that at times it’s difficult to equate them as being the same basic instrument. Yet, there is much to commend in this new recording. The bright focus of the instrument, for example, gives a certain stature to the principal themes (which sound more like music hall ballads when Polekh plays them) and Oramo’s careful balancing and shaping of the orchestral material emphases the Tchaikovsky influence far more powerfully than we get from Glière’s own performance. Maskuniitty obviously relished the opportunity to write his own cadenza for the first movement, and while it wanders into territory somewhere between Siegfried and Pierre Boulez, he has no qualms in showing off his remarkable pitch range as well as his ability to negotiate large intervallic leaps with all the agility of Russian gymnast. And as a final demonstration of his breath-defying athleticism, his outburst of phenomenal virtuosity (from 6:12) makes a rousing conclusion to a splendid debut disc.

Marc Rochester

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