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Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2010 ARD Competition, Day 11 - French Horn, Semi final

It’s strange that intonation should be less an issue with up-and-coming French horn players, than with cellists, but that’s what the ARD Music Competition’s horn semi final produced. Six musicians, each playing a Mozart concerto and each playing the commissioned composition, performed over a almost four hours, always in groups of three tackling “Bamberger Hörnchen” by Jörn Arnecke, then their concerto.

The commissioned work’s name is a coy play on the city in which Arnecke composed it and the many meanings of “Hörnchen”, which is not just the diminutive of French horn (just “Horn”, in German), but also means squirrel, or a croissant-like pastry. Unfortunately the work was neither cute nor yummy, bound to be played one more time (by the winner of the contemporary performance prize at the prize winner concert’s), and then never again. To see all six candidates struggle with it in various degrees was understandable… there was little music to squeeze out of the notes between all the required technical shtick. Constant pitch and microtone shifts make it sound like an organized tuning effort. Especially after the Salonen work “knock, breathe, shine” and Borboudakis’ “loops’n grains” (Edition Peters), this was a notable drop-off in listening-enjoyment.

The first horn player to go was Dániel Ember (Hungary), who had trouble—as did everyone— to get the sung notes (“cantato”) out while simultaneously playing harmonics. The runs with alternating rhythmic patterns, among the most pleasing elements of “Bamberger Hörnchen”, were done very well, shifting the pulse Le Sacre style. Ember’s Mozart (the two concertos with ripieno horns were available to chose from; Ember went for the earlier K417), sadly, was crushingly boring from the first bars onward. Dopey’s interpretation, if you will, without the (un)intentional humor. There was nothing the excellent, but eventually exhausted, Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) could do, accompanying such a listless performance. Give me spunk, surprise, excitement… give me anything, just not this limpid student-timidity. Ember was accurate in the Rondo throughout, but dutiful, plain, earnest. The hunting call dotted notes in the Rondo were awfully tame, not at all a crushing hunting party storming indoors, mud still on their boots.

Lin Jiang (Australia) was next. He had gorgeous, soft-hued moments of precision in the pitch-changes of “Hörnchen”, and terrifically articulated consonants in the spoken elements, which made it sound as though someone was walking behind him on stage. He even eked a few musical moments from the score by successfully connecting phrases. But his runs were very clumsy, and the breathing in legato phrases distracted. A few stumbles here and there, fewer dynamic variations, but no fewer troubles with the “cantato” part than his Hungarian colleague. In Mozart—also K417—his sound was muffled, the playing not much less unexciting, and a few infelicitous tones are almost a welcome diversion. But it was still this damnable ‘playing safe’ that is the course of competitions.

Přemsyl Vojta (Czech Republic) performed the “Hörnchen”-runs very nicely, smoothly shifting the pulse without a halting moment. The part where the player has to percussively speak the consonants “ktktpt…” into the instrument was different from Jian, less neat but with a more pronounced accelerando—as he was more observant of the dynamic markings in general. But even he couldn’t get that pasty-squirrel into gear. In Mozart’s K496, he slumbered in homely circles through the first movement, a docile smile on his face, emitting a sense of farm-boy transfiguration. The physical and temperamental difference from horn players to, say, cellists, is strikingly obvious, and very possibly telling. In the first movement cadenza—his own—Vojta managed to surprise with a slight touch of genius, referencing the ‘cantato’ parts of the commissioned composition. (Once would have sufficed, though… three times was pushing it.) The Rondo was dashing, but still short of excitement.

Paolo Mendes (Germany) stumbled through the modern work, his ‘cantato’ was non-existent, the runs terribly inarticulate, pure struggle, the ‘consonantization’ letters not spoken through the horn but in front of mouth piece. A cast on his left leg made the poor sod hop on stage on crutches and perform kneeling his injured leg on a piano bench. His K495 wasn’t on crutches, fortunately. In the opening movement he produced some of the clearest, longest lines; moments where one could imagine classical restraint, rather than timidity, to have taken hold. It ended up just a notch above boredom… something that cadenza-struggles couldn’t take away from him.
Cong Gu (China) went into his “Hörnchen” tight, quick, reasonably successful with the cantato, observant of the closed bell sounds (“+”), but his runs weren’t as good as Vojta’s or Ember’s. Then again he gave the cantabile section almost lullaby qualities (!) and he managed for a kind of “Pacific 231” accelerando in the ‘consonantization’ part. His legato runs weren’t as slurred as others, but the humidity-disposing construction breaks mid-work were distracting. In K495 he performed neatly, no more soporific than his colleagues, with some robot-romance in the slow movement and then moved from “OK” to “good” in the Rondo.

That not he, but Luise Bruch (German), went on to the finale, must have had something to do with their performances in the first and second round—failing that, it could well be anti-Asian bias on part of the all non-Asian jury, all-European except for ex-Chicago first hornist Dale Clevenger and the principal French Horn of the BRSO, Eric Terwilliger (a Bloomington native, but billed as a German jury member). That’s not a far-fetched suggestion; ask any Asian orchestra musician who has tried out for European orchestras and they’ll tell you tons of stories where he or she encountered the “technically very good, of course, but not with the ‘proper’ emotion” prejudice.

Anyway, with Fräulein Bruch one hoped (while dabbling in stereotypes) for female sensitivity, or perhaps a performance that really let rip in nice contrast to the looks of this pale ginger hornist. Alas, no game. “Cantato” is no more than a meekly hoot with female voices (those parts are written differently for women), her runs were halting, the ‘consonantization’ paltry, and little coherence in the last parts where, in her defense, the notes don’t easily yield coherence. Her Mozart—K495 for a fourth time in a row—opened with wobbles, fortunately hidden by the ripieno in the opening tutti. Thing got better briefly before it was back to howlers. If her Rondo had been riddled with fewer slips and mistakes, it would have been easier to enjoy what was one of the more musical presentations of the night.

The four Europeans advanced into the finale which will take place tomorrow, at 6pm, in the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz.

available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, Horn Concertos,
Clevenger (jury member)
Franz Liszt Ch.O.
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W.A. Mozart, Horn Concertos,
Koster (jury member)
Tafelmusik / Weil
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W.A. Mozart, Horn Concertos ,
Royal Philharmonic / Dausgaard
Royal Philharmonic Masterworks

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