Rhapsodie: Fantasie: Poème

Alain Steghens
Res Musica (France)

‘Horn sounds, in the evening, from the depths of the bush’

It must have been the passion of two great Australian horn-players for such a CD to see the light of day; a program almost exclusively devoted to French music for horn and orchestra! Besides the young soloist, Ben Jacks, the conductor Barry Tuckwell is a renowned master of the instrument. Do the names of Dukas, Kœchlin, Saint-Saëns and Damase have an ‘exotic’ connotation for our Australian friends? Or do Australians demonstrate a greater curiosity to explore this repertoire than we do? Whatever the reasons, let’s celebrate this unusual release which shows off to advantage this unknown corner of French music and does so very well indeed!

In the absence of other recordings, it seems good to consider the scores themselves when four of the six works presented here are world premieres! Perfectly tonal and written in a style worthy of the heritage of Poulenc, Ravel or Jean Françaix, the music of Damase sounds a little bit ‘retro’. The Concerto pour cor et orchestre, composed in 1995, is a perfect example: well-crafted orchestral writing (in which the conductor, the dedicatee Barry Tuckwell, evidently delights), great rhythmic agility and a profound sense of lyricism are the principal facets. The third movement, Andante, is abundant with echoes of Hollywood and replete with wild melodies. When one realises that the witty Jean-Michel Damase is also an enthusiast of pastiche, one almost smiles whilst listening to Ben Jacks drawing velvety tones from his instrument that carry us to the world of The Horse Whisperer. It’s the same with Rhapsodie.          

Villanelle and Poème illustrate perfectly the orchestrating art of Paul Dukas and Charles Kœchlin. As for Saint-Saëns’ Morceau de concert (Concert piece), it is, well, a concert piece. It’s a sort of musical meringue really...having only one purpose: to showcase the soloist. Ben Jacks shines in it, alternating extraordinary virtuosity with beautiful musicality. The program concludes with another meringue—this time with a wallaby flavour—the rather improbable Phantasy for horn and orchestra by a certain G.L.W. Marshall, composer born in London and who made his career in Melbourne in the 1900s.This CD is a splendid affair where French charm vies with a certain touch of kitsch. The recording is sumptuous and the two Australian outfits, Orchestra Victoria and The Queensland Orchestra, are led with brio by Barry Tuckwell.

As an aside, one couldn’t miss the cover image; a very successful illustration of ‘British’ humour and quite unexpected!