Rhapsodie: Fantasie: Poème

Paul A. Snook
Fanfare (US)

This fantastic release of music for horn and orchestra is notable on several different counts: First of all, for horn aficionados, because the two orchestras involved are conducted by the now-legendary Barry Tuckwell, and the featured soloist is the outstanding, up-and-coming young Australian virtuoso Ben Jacks. Second, this superbly produced disc from the classy new Aussie label Melba (named, of course, after the great down-under operatic star of a century ago), which offers handy, sturdy, cardboard packaging with none of that horrible plastic housing, and which last year gave us premiere recordings of two Saint-Saëns’, rarest and loveliest vocal works, Hélène and Nuit en persane, sports a dreamily lit cover photo of a sexy lady embracing both a proud poodle and a shiny French horn. And third, this release includes an extremely literate and trilingual annotation that tells the fascinating history of the gradually evolving changeover in 19th-century France from the ‘hand’ horn to the ‘omnitonic’ valve horn.

But for this repertoire-conscious listener, the most rewarding and significant factor here is the presence of two first recordings of concertante works for French horn by the inimitable Frenchman Jean-Michel Damase (b.1928). Damase is a quintessentially Gallic figure who has produced an enormous body of irresistibly seductive music in all forms, both orchestral and chamber, with special emphasis on wind instruments and the harp. (Although the chamber music has been well served on disc, still unrecorded are the two piano concertos, a breathtaking Symphony—premiered by Munch—and a gorgeous Violin Concerto, among many other works, including several ballet scores, such as The Diamond-Cruncher and Piège de lumiere.) A precocious pianist who won his Prix de Rome at 19, Damase has perfected a lilting, melody-driven idiom that derives in equal parts from Fauré, Poulenc, and popular romantic ballads and that is immediately identifiable as his and no other’s. His themes, once announced, almost appear to write themselves, drawn from a seemingly inexhaustible well of agile and florid lyricism, his inborn sense of form and growth allowing them to evolve towards epiphanic climaxes that never seem forced or arbitrary. Both the 1987 Rhapsodie and the 1995 Concerto, each about a quarter hour’s duration, illustrate his near-flawless affinity for organic naturalness and expressive rightness. Those who remember the old vinyl recording of Rampal playing Damase’s Silk Rhapsody will know what to expect.

An orchestration of the Dukas perennial recital piece, Villanelle, by Paul Terrancini expands this lovely work’s range of poetic evocativeness, while two French horn staples—Saint-Saëns’ stately Concert Piece and the quite Romantic and quasi-Wagnerian Poème by Charles Kœchlin (a later orchestration of his early Horn Sonata)—are also part of this sumptuous program .... Phantasy written in 1905 by the obscure Parry pupil who emigrated to Australia, G.W.L. Marshall-Hall, rounds out the disc.

Jacks and Tuckwell complement each other at the top of their respective forms, so these interpretations have to be deemed definitive. And the acoustic ambience is like ambrosia to the ears. This is a winner—and a keeper!