Alec Frank-Gemmill / Alasdair Beatson

A Noble and Melancholy Instrument: Music for horns and pianos of the 19th century

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The cover for this BIS release (the title comes from Berlioz, who is not represented) may lead you to expect an ordinary recital of music for horn and piano. It's actually something more rewarding and more ambitious: a historical-performance release covering the history of its two instruments over the course of the 19th century. Each horn-piano pair is shown in photographs, with explanations in the booklet as to what the players were after. And the results are often revelatory. In the first half of the program, hornist Alec Frank-Gemmill uses a variety of natural horns. Beethoven's Horn Sonata in F major, Op. 17, is not played terribly often, but here, with a Viennese-style piano and a horn from the sonata's year of 1800, it takes on a lightness that links it to the rest of Beethoven's pastoral repertoire. Sample the quiet passage at the end of the finale, one of several places on the album where the talents of instrument maker, performer, and composer seem to converge as they might have in a successful performance of the work in its own time. Another standout is the Prelude, Theme, and Variations of Rossini, from his Sins of My Old Age collections. This work is all but unknown, but the performance here brings out the work's light virtuosity. Most of the music, in fact, has hardly been heard for a half-century, and equally, most of it has virtues that have been lost. BIS engineers, working in a German radio studio, contend successfully with a variety of challenges. Highly recommended, and not just for historical-performance buffs.

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