Review: “Concert for Horns”, Auckland Philharmonia (9 October 2014)


The French Horn is an intriguing instrument. On the one hand, it looks like something that a master plumber or heating engineer with a vague interest in music might have come up with. Way back when, there was a time when horns weren’t that complicated and they looked as if some brass pipe had been wound around a few times. But the sound generated wasn’t always reliable or indeed tuneful. So it gradually evolved into the valved instrument it is now.

Not surprisingly, it is not an easy thing to play. I’ve tried and got a sort of hissing sound. When played well, it produces a magnificent golden and rounded sound which is quite unique and therefore essential to an orchestra.

This then might have something to do with the lack of concertos for the horn. Robert Schumann sought to address that defect in part when he composed his Konzertstuck (Concert Piece) for a quartet of them.

To perform this, the Auckland Philharmonia’s entire horn section, principal Nicola Baker with her colleagues Emma Richards, Carl Wells and Simon Williams, were the star soloists of the evening. Pre-concert gossip had created a good deal of anticipation for a quality performance of this tricky, but relatively short three-movement work.

While the performance was not note perfect, that was not the point. The lively spirit of the piece was captured well and the ensemble playing in particular was solid and showed off the positive qualities of these brass instruments. The non-horn sections of the Auckland Philharmonia provided a suitably bold accompaniment which did not overwhelm the soloists. Naturally, the substantial Town Hall audience loved it.

British conductor Paul Goodwin is a man who knows what he wants from an orchestra and if you can’t understand what he is communicating, then you probably need to get your eyes checked. Dynamics and phrasing in particular were clearly emphasised with a wide range of gestures and the performance of Haydn’s Military Symphony which commenced proceedings had plenty of energy and character as a result. Its grand and loud military themes, designed to surprise and delight also, were clear for all to hear. The lady sitting next to me summed up things very well to her friend. She said it was fun. Very well put.

I wonder if anyone else noticed the subtle change made in the second half for the Poulenc Sinfonietta. The second violins were seated next to the firsts and this showed a keen awareness of how the piece was written. To my ear, it made a real difference and Maestro Goodwin’s insistence on clarity ensured a memorable performance. (Radio New Zealand Concert take note – please make this performance available on Podcast Classics at some stage !)

The Poulenc was not the end of this excellent concert. I was wondering why Principal Flute Katie Zagorski was waiting in the wings. Maestro Goodwin had in mind an encore in the form of the last movement of the Haydn but without the repeats to show how surprising and exciting it was. Once again it fizzed with a vibrant energy that was positively infectious. A great way to complete a delightful evening of musical fun.

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About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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