Released on 28th September 2010 by Naxos (digital format only), with Karl Pituch (horn) and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
Here we have another release of a John Williams concerto featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The soloist is Karl Pituch, the principal horn of the DSO, and he has his work cut out for him in this piece. The concerto was written for and premièred by Dale Clevenger, the principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The concerto begins with a movement entitled “Angelus”, which is haunted by the sound of pealing bells. The mood here is sombre, ancient, and has a certain martial tint – the War Requiem of Britten is brought to mind. Speaking of Britten, much of the arpeggio-based horn writing in this first movement is strongly reminiscent of “Blow, Bugle, Blow” from Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. An evocative, novel way to start a concerto.
The second movement “The Battle of the Trees” is a mini-concerto for percussion and horn, with the vast resources of the percussion section driving the horn to more and more frenzied responses. Williams uses the wooden percussion to illustrate the battle, and we are reminded of some of the more hectic battle scenes from his film scores here, although not in scale – the movement barely lasts two minutes.
Next follow two linked movements: “Pastorale”, which runs into “The Hunt”. In “Pastorale”, the horn gets its first chance to show off its expressive side, although the tender mood doesn’t last long (who’s surprised?) The hunt music disturbs the calm earlier than expected, and we’re treated to some energetic and exciting material. Williams uses the horn throughout this concerto in ways which “stir memories of antiquity” – in this case, the traditional character of the hunting horn is evoked. The movement ends with a cadenza and a final hunting cry. It’s especially “The Hunt” and “The Battle of the Trees” which make us realise why the concerto’s dedicatee Dale Clevenger at first thought the piece was too difficult to be played.
The concerto ends softly, as it began, with “Nocturne”, a lengthy song for the horn with an expressive, sometimes pained accompaniment. This movement, like most of the five, has a broad feeling of a ternary structure, with a contrasting middle section. The song-like outer sections here surround a more active, passionate outpouring. At times, especially in the singing sections here and in “Pastorale”, Pituch’s vibrato is a bit grating. The concerto ends with solemn horn calls, Williams persuading us to “dream backward to the ancient time”.
This is an entertaining concerto, and a very strong performance from both soloist and orchestra (the percussion section, in particular, shine in the second movement). While the concerto is not one of my favourites of Williams, it contains much fine material. I think it
is best understood as a tone poem, describing some vague collection of scenes from the past, with the horn sometimes reflecting as a commentator, more than a participant in the action. The overall arc of the concerto isn’t as satisfying as, say, the Violin Concerto or Cello Concerto, but it works well as a series of pictorial fragments, like the Bassoon Concerto “Five Sacred Trees.”
If you aren’t familiar with Williams’ concert music, this may be a good place to start, due to the common ground that programmatic music has with film music.
Listen to samples and buy the recording here:
Williams: Horn Concerto (Pituch, Slatkin, DSO)