Luc Bergé

The Royal Brussels Hornsound

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This album focuses on a very specific compositional niche: nineteenth century Belgian horn octets. (That's fudging a little -- one octet includes two trombones, but still.…) These are intriguing performances of two entirely pleasant but innocuous works that rely largely on the conventional stereotypes of early and late Romantic-era music. Martin-Joseph Mengal's Grand Octet, from before 1820, might have been written by Weber on one of his less inspired days, but it is genial and high-spirited. It uses the natural horn, which only produces the notes of the overtone scale, unless the pitch is altered by placing the right hand deeper into the bell. A major side effect of stopping the bell is a change in tone quality from open and round to pinched and tight. The most skilled virtuosos can ameliorate the change so that the alteration in tone quality is so slight as to be barely noticeable, and even use the change as an expressive tool. (Some composers, including Brahms, strongly preferred the use of natural horns over the more tonally consistent valve horns that have become the norm for modern players.) These players, led by hornist Luc Bergé, perform with strong technique and musicality, but have not fully mastered minimizing the change in tone color in the shift from open to stopped notes, and it may take the listener a few minutes to adjust and accept the convention. Léon Dubois' Octet (1885-1895) for valve horns is more eclectic than the Mengal, with influences as diverse as Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner, and it is a more substantial piece overall. Because there is not the distraction of alternating open and stopped notes, it's an easier and more accessible listening experience. The sound is surprisingly clean given the potential for muddiness with a homogenous ensemble of this size.

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