Giovanni Punto: Horn Concerto no. 11 in E

performed by Barry Tuckwell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner

What distinguished Punto, in a way that one has never heard in any other artist heretofore, was his most magnificent performance, the gentlest portrayals, the thunder of tones and their sweetest indescribable blending of nuances with the most varied tone production, an agile tongue, dexterous in all forms of articulation, single and double tones, and even chords, but most important, a silver-bright and charming cantabile tone.

Franz Joseph Fröhlich

A Bit of History

Giovanni Punto was born Jan Václav Stich on 28 September, 1746 in what was then Bohemia. He was a very famous horn player who Wikipedia says was “a pioneer of the hand-stopping technique which allows natural horns to play a greater number of notes.” As discussed previously, in an instrument with no valves, the notes that could be played were quite limited, and it was this bending of pitch and other adjustment that began to give the horn more versatility.

Punto apparently learned this hand-stopping technique from one Anton Joseph Hampel, who is credited with having created, or as Wiki says, developed the technique, while saying here that Punto “went on to refine the hand-stopping technique and spread it through Europe, inspiring works from composers such as Beethoven,” as we have already seen.

Punto had quite a privileged upbringing, it seems, as the son of “a serf bonded to the estate of Count Joseph Johann von Thun“, and he learned singing, violin and horn, eventually traveling a bit around Europe, studying maybe most notably with Hampel, but to be honest, not a single name there rings any bells.

After having completed his studies, he returned to the Count, and I quote Wiki directly:

…where he remained for four years, earning a reputation for volatility and troublemaking. At the age of 20 Stich ran away, with four friends. The Count, who had invested heavily in his prodigy, dispatched soldiers with orders to knock out Stich’s front teeth to prevent him ever playing the horn again. Fortunately they failed to capture the party, and Stich crossed into Italy, into the Holy Roman Empire.

Talk about drama!

It is perhaps for this reason that upon reaching Italy, he changed his name to the much more Italian-sounding Giovanni Punto, where he was for a short time employed by a prince, but later became a traveling soloist known for his technique. He was especially successful in Paris, and had occasion to meet many famous composers of his day, including the Mozarts and Beethoven. As Mozart did with the piano, Punto also wrote compositions for himself to show off his ability on the horn. Securing his own coach for a tour of the Rhineland after having become Konzertmaster at some French establishment shows that he apparently was also considerably wealthy.

In any case, he died of pleurisy on 16 February, 1803, only a few years after having returned home from a 33-year absence. Wiki says that Mozart’s requiem was performed at the graveside. I’d like to see that.

The Album: Still an Artistic Form

In any case, after that bit of history, I’d like to say something about the album, or record, or CD, or whatever you call that concept (now more abstract than literal, as the physical constraints of capacity are really no longer a real consideration). Back in the day when I listened to music that isn’t considered classical, I was (and still am, I guess) a sucker for a concept album, a perfect creation of 70-80 minutes of music, in however many tracks, that (while they are still songs and [at least somewhat] popular music) fits together to tell a narrative, to bring one on a journey from beginning to end, and I can think of no better example than Joanna Newsom’s three-disc masterpiece Have One on Me. It’s not as challenging a first listen as her earlier (and arguably more transcendental) release Ys, but it is glorious, the pinnacle of literary all around, although Ys is more symphonic in approach.

What I mean to say is that there are some artists who can get that thing down, who approach the entire concept of an album (a release) as an art form, like a novel or set of short stories, rather than a few hit articles with some filler or padding here and there. But that concept doesn’t often (if at all) enter into the world of classical music, but it did here.

At the top of the article, I credit Barry Tuckwell and Sir Neville Marriner and his St. Martin band with the performance of the recording I listened to. Both of the pieces this week come from this album (actually two discs) because I had it on hand. Granted, I should have discussed much more of the other work on this disc, with concertos from both Haydns, three other Punto concertos, as well as works from Telemann, Cherubini, and Mozart, among others. My point is… buying a whole album can be a way to discover new music, as we shall also see with another album in a few weeks. Listening to something just because you have it on hand isn’t always a bad reason.

The eleventh concerto, the latest on the discs, and one of the latest of his 16 (since 12, 13, 15 and 16 are lost), was written in 1794, or sometimes listed as being published in 1799, says Robert Ostermeyer Musikedition, mentioning that it was likely composed a decade or more before either of those dates. The work is in three movements and lasts around 15 minutes.

After all that background, let’s now get to the work at hand. The opening, I swear, sounds so much like something from someone else, maybe the beginning of a Mozart work…? But I can’t place it. The work has a rather long introduction before the soloist appears. I’m not sure (of much about this work at all, really but) if the ensemble has “ripieno” horns, but it seems there are horns holding some low notes down in the bottom of the register before the soloist appears.

The first movement is the longest of the three, and it feels… full, like there’s lots of material, less like we have a small A subject and B subject with a brief development, maybe a more varied approach, but it could just be a plain old sonata form, which wouldn’t surprise me coming from 1799. There’s even a nice cadenza at the very end of the movement. The orchestral writing is pleasant and crisp, but the focus is so obviously the horn, with trills, high notes, low notes, plenty of opportunity to show off.

The second movement again begins with an orchestral phrase, but if you want to hear one of the most expressive solo crescendos ever, listen to the entry of the horn in this movement. It lasts, and grows, and is a wonderful introduction to the tender lyricism of this slow movement, in contrast with the more active first movement. It’s the shortest movement of the work, but soft, natural, a satisfied sigh, a cool breeze before we reach our finale.

Here again we have a longish orchestral introduction, with no surprise firework entry from the soloist or anything, but once he enters, it’s almost a continuous flurry of notes, leaps, trills, with small glimpses of the orchestra here and there, but the showoff continues as we reach the end of the movement, and while the trills and constant leaps might not be so mellifluous as one would hope to hear, it’s technically formidable I’m sure. The jumps and almost abrasive technical display cools off for a much more melodious passage to round out this pleasant work in a pleasing, polished way.

This is a wonderful work, to be sure. The writing for the orchestra is at least not boring, although I can’t pinpoint anything especially outstanding about it. The horn writing is great, and it’s an overall enjoyable piece to hear, but I’m not sure I’d have the interest to hear sixteen of these. Even if I did, it’s too bad, because, as we said, some are missing, but that’s okay. There are a few other Punto concertos on the same album(s) of Tuckwell’s performances, and I’ll have to check them out, I suppose.

For now, this might seem like a more obligatory post, but it is a nice work, even if I was more motivated to feature the composer himself rather than any particular piece of his. But that’s okay. We have eight more pieces featuring the horn which we will be discussing in the coming weeks, before we move on to something I’ve been wanting to do for ages, so do stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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