Wigmore Mondays – Alec Frank-Gemmill & Alasdair Beatson: John Casken world premiere

Horn player Alec-Frank Gemill and pianist Alasdair Beatson give the world premiere of a new work by John Casken at the Wigmore Hall

alec-frank-gemmillWigmore Hall, London, 1 February 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window) – available until 3 March

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06yrgk5

What’s the music?

James MacMillan – Motet V from ‘Since it was the day of Preparation’ (for solo horn) (2010-11) (8 minutes)

Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F major Op. 17 (1800) (16 minutes)

John Casken – Serpents of Wisdom (world première, 2015) (12 minutes)

Schumann – Adagio and Allegro in A flat major Op. 70 (1849) (9 minutes)

Spotify

Unfortunately neither the MacMillan nor the Casken pieces are available to stream at present. However you can hear the Beethoven and Schumann on the link here:

About the music

There is a pleasing amount of recent music written for the solo horn – and Alec-Frank Gemmill begins this concert with an extract from a much larger work by Sir James MacMillan. Since it was the day of Preparation… is a large, 70-minute piece using texts from St John’s Gospel – but within it are sections for solo instruments from the ensemble, using the sort of structure a composer like Benjamin Britten would have employed. A substantial one of these, for solo horn, is heard here.

John Casken wrote Serpents of Wisdom for this concert and these players, and was inspired by the imagery of a serpent primarily through the poem Celtic Cross by Norman MacCaig. As he wrote he was taken through the idea of a musical representation of the coils of brass that make up the horn. Through the piece he uses some unusual effects such as natural harmonics, which make the horn sound out of tune but are intended.

Beethoven wrote one of the very first sonatas for horn and piano, a three-movement construction that he started – and finished – the day before giving it in concert with the horn player known as Giovanni Punto. Meanwhile Schumann’s only work for horn and piano, the Adagio and Allegro, was written for a member of the Dresden Court Orchestra. It has been a little unfairly taken on by viola and cello players, and is more commonly heard in that version. Reverting to horn and piano enables us to hear why the theme for the Allegro works so well in its original form.

Performance verdict

A pleasant change for a Monday lunchtime from the Wigmore Hall – the first horn recital they have programmed at such a time for years. It was made all the better by the choice of a world premiere, and by the artistry of Alec Frank-Gemmill and Alasdair Beatson, an exciting duo fully justifying their billing as young musicians well worth experiencing live.

Frank-Gemmill is a really excellent player, and took on the Casken with impressive belief and skill. While clearly not an easy piece to play it made a powerful impression – equally so in the piano part, where Beatson had to work hard with some tricky passage work. Although inspired by the coils of brass, Casken’s piece often felt to me as though it was craggy in outline, and while its impression was largely gruff and unforgiving, there were some surprisingly tender asides.

The MacMillan was a striking piece, clearly in homage to Britten – and reminiscent of some of his writing for Dennis Brain – but also showing how it is possible to write quietly for the horn without losing any expression. Frank-Gemmill managed the low notes brilliantly here.

The Beethoven and Schumann were much more conventional but equally enjoyable. Beethoven writes for the horn without any inhibitions and there was plenty of gusto in the outer movements of this performance. The Schumann is a glorious piece, a true musical evocation of happiness, though this account did not completely lift itself off the printed page. No matter, for the new pieces had already left a lasting imprint – and an encore, Glazunov’s Rêverie, made for a lovely finish.

What should I listen out for?

MacMillan

1:41 – MacMillan’s piece has a soft and reverential opening which gives the piece a tonality and also a very low main note, which makes a lovely sound on the horn.

The melody has the appearance of plainchant, and gradually it grows in breadth and confidence. Then around 7:20 the music takes a confrontational approach, whooping excitedly and going all the way up to a remarkably high note at 8:04 – before its relatively calm finish.

Beethoven

11:58 – a brief yet quite understated fanfare from the horn begins the work – and it receives ample support from the more graceful piano theme behind it. A thoughtful second theme is heard at 12:55 before the first section of the first movement is repeated at 14’29. After a short development we hear the main tune once again at 18:15, and the second theme – now in the same key as the main one – at 18:59.

21:04 – a slower movement that begins with a soft and slightly sad air – but it doesn’t last long, as essentially it serves as a long introduction to the final movement, beginning at…

22:30 – quite an angular main tune for this movement, which proceeds in high spirits. The main theme comes back again, signs off brilliantly around 27:27

Casken

29:39 – a brisk start, energetic too. The first of the ‘natural’ notes is heard at 30:13 – you can hear it is out of tune but it is meant to be. The slower music at 30:44 is brooding and paints a relatively austere picture. As the music gets quieter the horn turns to the mute.

There is then an extended piece of writing with impressive energy and stature from the horn, which is required to perform a number of very difficult tasks, usually in cahoots with the piano, which itself has a jagged outline to its music. A slower section runs around 38:30, but then the piece gathers itself for a big finish at 40:15.

Schumann

42:42 – a slow and romantic Adagio, led by the horn, which is largely graceful but has some tricky high notes. This leads into the exuberant Allegro at 46:59. This has a tricky theme with a wide range.

Encore

53:19 – as a soft-hearted encore the pair play the Rêverie in D flat major by Glazunov, which is a warm piece, even when it reaches the depths at 54:55. (4 minutes)

Further listening

This very fine disc from Richard Watkins, on the NMC label, brings together writing for horn from a number of highly respected modern composers, among them Gerald Barry, Peter Maxwell Davies, Robin Holloway, Colin Matthews, David Matthews, Mark Anthony Turnage and Huw Watkins. You can listen here:

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