Carl Maria von Weber: Concertino for Horn in Em, J188 (Op. 45)

performed by Barry Tuckwell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner (from the same album mentioned earlier in the week), or below by Anthony Halstead, natural horn, with The Hannover Band under Roy Goodman

This is our first appearance of Weber on the blog not in a concert review, but for one of his own pieces, not just something based on something he wrote.

Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was born on “18 or 19 November 1786” and is stated on Wikipedia to be “a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist[3] and critic, one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school.”

For such an important, pivotal figure, I can’t do him justice by giving a quick overview of his life before jumping into today’s work. Suffice it to say he was an outstanding pianist, and his most influential area of composition was undoubtedly his operas:

Weber’s operas Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon greatly influenced the development of the Romantische Oper (Romantic opera) in Germany. Der Freischütz came to be regarded as the first German “nationalist” opera, Euryanthe developed the Leitmotif technique to an unprecedented degree, while Oberon may have influenced Mendelssohn‘s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, at the same time, revealed Weber’s lifelong interest in the music of non-Western cultures.

(again from Wikipedia)

That aside, another famous are of composition for him was his works for clarinet, bassoon and horn. He wrote two concertos for the clarinet, as well as a concertino and a quintet, a concerto (and maybe more) for bassoon, and today, obviously, we will be discussing his concertino for horn and orchestra.

The work was written (or completed) in 1815, for a solo horn and small orchestra (one flute, pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets; timpani; strings). The single-movement work is only around 17 minutes long, but is considered “extremely taxing” and as to its structure, Wikipedia says that “The form is loosely constructed and can be described as (slow) introduction, (andante) theme, variations, recitative, polonaise (Warrack 1976, p. 168).” That’s quite a lot of content to be crammed into such a small package, and as a result, with the virtuosity of the solo part and the structure of the work, it’s an exciting piece. We’ll also hear the soloist producing multiphonics, humming into the instrument at one point, to create a chord… quite something.

It’s maybe not surprising then that the opening of the work, with two dramatic chords, and even the entry of the soloist thereafter, sounds brilliantly operatic, with the gripping drama of an overture and the lyricism of an aria from the soloist. In this slow introduction, we hear not only Weber’s exquisite writing and penchant for drama, but also the acrobatics that are and will become (more) necessary as the work progresses. The horn’s expressions in this small passage alone range from bold and full down to a whisper, and also to the lower range of the instrument. There’s a lot to appreciate in this work, as we shall see.

The andante theme is a beautiful one, again, more operatic sounding to me than concertante, as the solo horn really takes the spotlight with the orchestra serving as a polite and quite background accompaniment, only coming to the forefront long enough for the soloist to have a breath and likely empty his spit valves, because it’s only a brief moment before we move (or rather leap) away from that stately theme to its variations, complete with the acrobatics and greater bounces and leaps, getting some help from his brass brethren in the ensemble.

The lyricism in the central part of this piece is absolutely intoxicating, and the variations are not only beautifully operatic, but virtuosic and extremely memorable. It’s in this central section that we get contrasts from the different variations, and right about at the very middle of the piece, we have what feels a bit like it’s going to become a cadenza. The orchestra does die away and the horn has its “recitative.” It’s here where we get those multiphonics, a very interesting technical inclusion, where the performer plays a note and hums others. It’s such an odd timbre, and it happens in the low end of the instrument, so you’ll hear not only the low, almost guttural growl of the horn, but the rumbly (literal) hum of the note(s) from the player himself. This seems like such an early application of extended technique, but the result is a piece that’s extravagantly, almost absurdly virtuosic.

But it’s also approached in such a genius way. This is a single movement work with distinct sections, as we have seen, but after the intimate, novelty passage of the player humming into the horn, how do we continue? It’s brilliant. The timpani picks up the low rumble and introduces what feels like the next scene, what Warrack apparently says is the polonaise. It’s certainly almost waltzy, melodic, with an infectious lyricism and lilt, celebratory after the more shadowy moments of this work. Call it a polonaise, or the finale, or whatever you want to call it, every subsection of this final chapter is chock full of charm, color, excitement and playfulness, and it’s a superb way to bring an end to this virtuosic, richly vibrant piece of music.

‘Concertino’ might not be a word you see very often. Ravel’s use of the term ‘sonatine’ for his ‘small’ piano work comes to mind. The sonatine isn’t trivial by any means, and while it’s small in stature, it’s a deeply stirring, beautiful, lush piece, full of technical difficulties for the pianist, and that, I guess, is the case here. Neither Ravel nor Weber needed an enormous sprawl of big multiple movements to convey everything they wanted to say. Granted, Ravel did use multiple movements; Weber didn’t even do that. We hear him able to tie together these different elements, what could easily have been separate movements, into one long line that offers so much enjoyment that I couldn’t really care any less about underlying motivic development or formal structures. That being said, there is a sort of slow-to-fast progression in the work, with the slow introduction, andante, some variations offering greater energy, a contrasting recitative and the burst of vitality that is the finale.

But I digress. My point was that there’s no need to fit the work into any specific form or strucutre, to attribute to it anything besides splendid, wonderful beauty, and that’s really what it is, isn’t it? It’s also virtuosic, operatic, and whatever else, but come down to it, it’s also a joy to listen to.

I’ll be honest: I’m terribly unfamiliar with most of Weber’s work, but the overall impression he gives me from the very few works I have heard is that his music embodies the same kind of vibrancy, a similar intensity, as that from Berlioz. There’s a kind of spiritual momentum, an inspired-ness that drives the work forward, stirs the soul and captivates the listener, and I think part of the similarity is in the deep sense of lyricism and melodic gifts that they possess. I’d say the same thing of Bizet, even from listening to nothing more than his C major symphony. We definitely need to get around to more Weber, but this unassuming(-seeming) concertino packs a beautiful punch in such a supposedly small package. There’s more to come, but I’d say this is certainly one of the surprising highlights of the series so far, and it comes from that same Tuckwell album with Sir Neville Marriner. What a find! Stay tuned for more.

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