Reviews of Le cor mélodique

Solo and ensemble brass instrument recordings
Trevor Herbert in Early Music, 09 April 2019.

Although the application of valves to brass instruments was one of the most important developments in musical instrument history, it should be seen as a process rather than an event, and one that was not free of complexity or controversy. Many entirely new valve instruments introduced in the long 19th century survive only as museum specimens, and interest in them was slight even at the time of their introduction, but the application of valves to the traditional brass instruments—trumpets, horns and trombones—was the subject of more earnest comment and deliberation. Two topics dominated: several different mechanical designs emerged and competed, each with the same objectives, so questions about the properties of various valve models and their efficiency across all parts of the pitch and dynamic range of instruments was a hot topic; hotter yet were fundamental questions about whether these innovations provided genuine added musical value.

Valves were added to trombones (probably in Vienna and not much earlier than about 1830) apparently for the practical purpose of enabling cavalry musicians to play them when mounted, but they soon gained wider favour and for the best part of 40 years were the instruments of choice in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Valves were just one of the devices introduced to make treble brass instruments chromatically versatile, and for a large part of the century, valve, key and slide trumpets co-existed (slide trumpeters played in the first London performances of Wagner’s operas). But the horn had a yet more interesting evolution. In the 18th century hand-stopping and clarino techniques reached extraordinary levels of sophistication and the clarity and subtlety of timbres that the finest players attained were widely appreciated. Berlioz was probably expressing the view of many when he cautioned against interfering with this ‘noble, melancholy instrument’ by neutralizing the variety of timbres that made it so: a diminution, or even a loss, of the variety of tone colours that could be caused by the equalizing quality of valve mechanisms was not a universally welcome prospect.

This point is well made by Anneke Scott in the extensive and intelligent essay included in the liner notes of her recording Le cor mélodique: mélodies, vocalises & chants by Gounod, Meifred & Gallay (Resonus RES10228, issued 2018, 76′). She performs on historic instruments: two Stolzen-model valve horns and a ‘cor solo’ natural horn made in 1823. Scott has established herself as one of the best period-horn performers and has also gained a reputation as a formidable scholar of the instrument. Her playing on this CD is consistently musical and technically assured, and the recordings stand as an exemplification of the qualities of which Berlioz wrote. The accompanist is Steven Devine, playing an 1851 London Erard piano. It is an interesting collection of works offering a vivid guide to the tensions that prevailed between the natural and the valve instrument in mid-century Paris. The sequence as it is revealed in the content of this CD is broadly this: Pierre-Joseph Émile Meifred performed a valve-horn composition of his own at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in 1828 and was later appointed to run a valve-horn class at the Paris Conservatoire in parallel to the hand-horn class of Louis François Dauprat, who was replaced in 1842 by another hand-horn virtuoso, Jacques François Gallay. In 1839 Gounod presented his Six Mélodies pour cor à pistons.Meifred’s Méthode pour le cor chromatique was published in 1840. Gounod’s own Méthode de cor à pistons was published a few years later, as was the méthode by Gallay. Scott’s balanced assessment of the Gounod book is really worth reading. The Gounod set, Dix Vocalises arranged by Meifred and arrangements of some Schubert melodies by Gallay are all included on the disc, which is very enjoyable as well as instructive.

Recording reviews
William Barnewitz, in The Horn Call, February 2019.

You know the old saw from when your grandmother was a kid – she walked to school ten miles, uphill, both ways, in the snow? Well, put this disc on, pretend that Anneke Scott is your grandmother, and imagine that some whiner complains about how hard it is to play a modern horn: Scott grabs a Marcel August Raoux natural horn with a set of detachable Boosey pistons, says, “Hold my beer,” then proceeds to show you how horn players can, musically speaking, walk to school ten miles, uphill, both ways, in the snow, and do it handily.

In the recording Le cor mélodique, Scott demonstrates the historic development of the valved horn and its potential as a virtuosic melodic instrument while making a compelling argument for the strict traditionalists of the time who thought that the natural horn was just fine, thank you very much. Scott’s performance on this CD is brilliant. Fair warning: without a video or a live lecture demonstration, the disc does require very active listening.

Part of an idea presented in Scott’s program is true: The horn, with its innovations of pistons, was on its way to becoming a more fully realized melodic instrument. It just didn’t catch on entirely until the early 20th century. Scott clearly shows how the early piston horn – with its potential for florid turns, chromatic modulation, and the expansion of step-by-step intervals in the middle-low registers – could fill in the technical gaps that were apparent on the natural horn. The repertoire is the vehicle for Scott both to exhibit the advancement of the piston horn and to knock us flat with her skills on the natural horn.

Anneke Scott is a talented artist. She has a clear, warm, lyrical sound and a facile technical ability that makes flamboyant passages smolder. What she doesn’t have in this collection is enough quality repertoire to work with to command attention for 75:57. The album starts with Charles Gounod’s Six Mélodies pour cor à pistons et piano, which illustrates the musical baby steps taken by composers of the era to create challenges for a newfangled piston instrument. Despite his simplistic, lackluster melodies, we can hear that the addition of pistons adds capability for melodic complexity. However well Gounod’s melodies show the potential, his lines are more likely to etherize the listener than to inspire. It also may be that the workman-like melodies were unimpressive to the formidable hand-horn players of the day. And why would they convert easily? The piston-doubting naysayers’ repertoire al- ready included works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as well as the virtuoso studies of Duprat, Duvernoy, and Gallay. Nonetheless, any true music geek has to love a debate like this. Innovation v. tradition? Piston v. natural horn? Plain v. peanut? Disputes like this are endless. We know the eventual winner, but as Scott demonstrates, it was neither a simple nor a final debate.

The tempi of the first six tracks are indistinguishable and monotonous. We learn from listening to the entire album that Scott has remarkable musical ability that inspires the listener and more than enough technical expertise with which to demonstrate the evolution of the instrument itself. However, because the technical subtleties aren’t immediately obvious in this surfeit of Gounod melodies, Le cor mélodique would be invaluable as a DVD or online video lecture demonstration so we could see as well as hear what Scott is doing with the combined use of pistons and hand techniques.

Another issue with the disc is that not until the track 8 Andantino do we experience either a new tempo or the obviousness of Scott’s adroitness on the horn. Then, suddenly, we are in different territory. In Joseph-Émile Meifred’s Dix Vocalises from Méthode pour le cor chromatique ou à pistons, the Andantino transcribed from August Mathieu Panseron captures the flexibility and sonic complexity available on the piston horn. Scott’s tremendous facility and clarity of sound fully draws the listener’s attention and does so from here until the disc is over. Chromatic possibilities and melodic modulations come out with ease. Of the six tracks transcribed from Marco Bordogni, the track 12 Andante is loaded with technical passages that cover ranges low to high without flaw. Track 13, Andante maestoso (this reviewer’s personal favorite track on the disc), is a clinic of virtuosity and style, making one stand in awe of Scott’s abilities and more than proving the piston horn’s potential.

But wait, there’s more! Just when you are convinced that the piston horn is bound to revolutionize horn playing, Scott presents Gallay’s Les Chants du coeur: Six Mélodies favorites deFrançois Schubert, Op. 51. These arrangements of well-knownSchubert lieder offer a hand-horn demonstration that prompts the thought, “Pffft! Valves? Who needs them?” Scott shows an exceptional hand-horn technique and an almost unlimited ability to negotiate the instrument effortlessly and musically.

This collection does a terrific job of highlighting the potential of both the natural horn and the developing valved horn, and Scott and her delightfully agile accompanist, StevenDevine, take the listener through more than enough repertoire to see what both instruments have to offer. Horn history buffs will particularly enjoy how thoroughly curated this collection is, and the rest of the horn world can ooh and aah at Anneke Scott’s brilliance. 

Andrew Benson-Wilson, in Early Music Reviews, 15th of November, 2018

The horn must have a claim to have one of the longest and most complex histories of all musical instruments, with the exception of the flute and the human voice. From the Scandinavian Lur (dating back some 12,000 years, and surviving today in the form of the crest on packs of butter), ancient animal horns (surviving today as the Jewish Shofar), via the Byzantine Oliphant, the Roman Cornu, and hunting and military horns came the gradual absorption into art music during the 17th century. Initially, these were valveless instruments only capable of playing very restricted notes but time and the addition of plumbing and valves gave the orchestral instrument a much greater range, but at some cost to the distinctive sound of the naturally produced notes of the harmonic scale, modified only by the mouth and hand of the player. In this recording, horn specialist Anneke Scott explores one of the developmental stages of the horn: the mid-19th-century transition from the natural to the piston horn, using three horns and three playing techniques, each related to the specific ideas of the composers.

The music (published 1839-41) is in an attractive early to mid-Romantic style. and the recording and playing emphasise this, together with its essential chamber quality. Despite being recorded in a large hall (the Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham), the slight acoustic bloom is appropriate, as is the balance between horn and piano. This recording also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Charles Gounod’s birth, whose Six Mélodies pour cor à pistons et piano form an appropriate introduction to his youthful style. The two other groups of pieces are the Dix Vocalises by Auguste Mathieu Panseron and Marco Bordogni included in Joseph-Émile Meifred’s Méthode pour le cor chromaque ou à pistons and Jacques-François Gallay’s Les Chants du Cœur: Six Mélodies favorites de François Schubert. The piano is an 1851 Érard grand piano, made in London and now in the University of Birmingham.

Three different horns and playing techniques are used. The Gounod and Meifred pieces use a c1840, a two-valved Guichard horn using techniques promoted by the composers. The Gallay Chants du Cœur use an 1823 cor solo natural horn from Oxford’s Bate Collection, the same model of horn as that awarded to Gallay when he won first prize at the Paris Conservatoire.

The Paris Conservatoire maintained the tradition of teaching the natural horn) into the early twentieth century, and this recording finishes with a very late example of the genre, Brémond’s 1893 transcription of the Gounod song À La Nuit, composed in 1891 shortly before his death). The transcription was written for the three–valved instrument but, tellingly, also makes use of the distinctive ‘stopped’ notes of the natural horn, something that both Gounod and Meifred would have appreciated. It is played on a three-valved piston horn dating from c1862 (with later amendments) from Anneke Scott’s own collection.

The detailed notes, in English only, make fascinating reading, not least in the reaction to the introduction of valves from those who relished the distinctive sound of the natural horn – “Valve horn players were warned against using the valves constantly and thus losing the opportunity to incorporate aspects of hand-horn stopping technique. The timbral differences of the natural horn, with its open and stopped notes, has been viewed as part of its unique expressive range. These effects were something to be championed, a desirable aspect of the instrument’s ‘melancholic nature’, rather than something to suppress or hide.“. The CD booklet can be read here and there is an expanded and illustrated essay, with video examples, on Anneke Scott’s website here.

Although this recording might, at first sight, seem of interest only to lovers of the horn, the music it contains is attractive and approachable. It is played with consummate sensitivity and elegance by Anneke Scott and Stephen Devine. It will appeal whether or not you have any interest in the mechanics of the instruments.