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Ionarts at Large: Wall of Horns at the Munich Opera Festival 2008

If the Eroica Symphony is that much greater a work for including horns, then therefore the horn as such must be that great an instrument. Imagine such greatness times eight – and you arrive necessarily, logically, at the genus of the horn octet. A compelling idea, clearly – as it should be a slice of musical heaven, on par with the Ode to Joy or the Halleluiah, by virtue of configuration alone.

If somehow the arithmetic doesn’t solve quite that neatly it must be because musical reality has a different mind. And it could be found out at the 2nd Chamber Concert in honor of the re-opening of the Munich Cuvilli­és Theater, that incomparable rococo jewel-box that the diminutive jester-cum-architect François de Cuvilli­és built for Elector of Bavaria, Max III. Joseph. Astonishingly, that concert – featuring only horns – was not nearly as silly as it might seem form the above premise. (A premise which I have admittedly distorted and re-fashioned to my liking from the somewhat more humble program notes.)

In fact, if you wanted to make an all-Horn concert a genuinely interesting affair, the first half gave the blueprint on how to do it. Eight horns began with a Michael Praetorius Baroque Suite which had the qualities of tender organ pipes played by an eight-fingered instrumentalist above. Three natural horns provided a very different look in Three Trios of F.Clapisson’s. What would have been a manageable task on modern French horns was fiendishly difficult on these instruments – a fact that demanded its tribute from the players without diminishing the accomplishment of the musicians of the Bavarian State Orchestra involved.

Three pieces by Gioachino Rossini were then played on four huge, valve-less hunting horns and the players appropriately donned hunting coats. Tailored to these instruments, it’s fairly simple music, of course... and the result akin to watching bicyclists climbing a steep mountain pass in the age of SUVs or Olympian sprinters run the 100-meter dash with their shoes tied together.

Regular horns were in use for Eugéne Bozza’s “Suite Pour Quatre Cors”. The six-partite work could be shorter, but the opening Prélude is kind on the ears. Spectacularly unfashionable, of course, as someone must have forgotten to tell Mr. Bozza that writing music of conventional beauty and harmony – even for friends – is very much a breach of convention and not at all the ­bon ton as it were among composers of the 20th century. Calliope was not audibly present when this work was begotten, but it is gratifying Gebrauchsmusik capping off a varied first half that was as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears.

Idomoneo ballet music sequences played with ten (10!) horns means that much Mozart and all the Mozartean lightness is lost. Imagine the “Dance of the Shadows” from La Bayadere as re-interpreted by two dozen small circus elephants. You admire the dexterity, but the grace of the original somewhat suffers along the way.

You may not think of Richard Strauss as a patently light composer – but he was an incredibly adept one and the colors and existent lightness (which is very light, when it does show up) suffers almost as much from this sort of transcription (both by Franz Kanefzky) as did the Mozart. Everything is gray and unlovely, even if occasional turns of phrases of the thus adapted Rosenkavalier-mélange rang true in this French horn monoculture. Had those perfectly lovely moments been sought out with greater discrimination, the whole affair would probably have been thoroughly pleasing.

As it was, the mere accomplishment of playing the music reasonably faultless did not suffice for whole-hearted admiration for either of these two pieces. Curious, though probably not surprising, that the two more promising works made for the much less inspired half.

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