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Music Review

A valveless horn of plenty

BSO principal horn James Sommerville in concert Sunday with the Handel and Haydn Society. BSO principal horn James Sommerville in concert Sunday with the Handel and Haydn Society. (Petr Metlicka)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 12, 2008

Medals for courageous service are not typically given out in classical music, but if they were, I would nominate any soloist who willingly takes on the natural horn. It looks more or less like its latter-day descendant, but it has no valves, so pitch is controlled by either manipulating one's lips or by hand-stopping, that is, plugging the bell with one's hand. Combine this unwieldy ancient instrument with a modern audience's expectations of virtuosity and accuracy, and you have the makings of a perfect storm.

But this is the instrument that many composers had in their ears when they wrote their concertos for horn, so out it comes when these works are played by period instrument bands. Of course, one can only guess how the horn actually sounded back then. We tend to assume that instrumental technique improves with the march of the centuries, but to watch a contemporary soloist wrestle with a natural horn is to stick a thumb in the eye of any myth of progress. This is a kind of wrestling match with the past, and the past typically wins, or at least scores a lot of points.

So it was for the valiant James Sommerville, principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who appeared in Symphony Hall this weekend as soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society under the direction of its conductor laureate, Christopher Hogwood. Either exceedingly brave or a glutton for punishment, Sommerville played not one but two concertos, by Haydn and Mozart, and Hogwood led the orchestra in symphonies by the same two composers.

Given what he was up against, Sommerville played with considerable eloquence and grace on Sunday evening, the second of two concerts. The performances were far from flawless - the past scored its share of points - but at his best, Sommerville produced a tone that was pure, mellow, and extremely flexible. He also did very nimble work in the brisk finale of Haydn's Horn Concerto No. 1.

Mozart never finished the first movement of his Concerto in E-flat Major (K. 370b + K. 371), so the Harvard musicologist Robert Levin did, and smoothly. The delicacy of Sommerville's playing in this work's final paragraphs made its conclusion a particular pleasure.

The music that bookended Sommerville's two concertos was a less unequivocal success. Mozart's Symphony No. 25 had sufficient youthful energy and vigor, but, under Hogwood's direction, the strings were missing the impeccable intonation and the tightly groomed, well-sculpted sound they have commanded on other occasions, and the brass playing was woefully uneven. Things improved modestly for Haydn's Symphony No. 88; the Largo sagged under Hogwood's baton, but the finale was a dash in high spirits.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

Handel and Haydn Society

Christopher Hogwood, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Sunday night

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