Les Troyens – Royal Hunt and Storm
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
Adrian Wheeler (horn)
Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 9 February, 2008
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London
Immediately following his entry, Jonathan Butcher took a little limelight. He talked of Berlioz as a supreme musical colourist – and the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra purred a beguiling chromatic melody that took on different hues from different sections of the strings. Butcher pointed out the ‘royal’ colour of the French horn as opposed to the English cornet. He praised Berlioz’s orchestral dexterity and ingenuity – showing how flutes plopped raindrops onto the strings before the orchestra unleashed semiquavers and triplets simultaneously in the hurtling storm that ensued. Butcher named Berlioz a genius. The orchestra then made his point – its vibrant playing of this extract from Berlioz’s epic opera sang Berlioz’s vigour, lyricism and originality with palpable freshness and enthusiasm.
Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto is an early work (there is a ‘late’ counterpart), a 19-year-old’s tribute to his horn-playing father – a professional who believed that nothing written after Beethoven’s death was worth playing. “Too many high notes” was Franz Strauss’s terse judgement on his son’s opus. It is, potentially, unplayable – if the player uses the valve-less, natural horn of Strauss’s day. Even on a horn with valves, the writing is extremely testing. Adrian Wheeler, over many years the principal horn of the Westminster PO, found the going tough. With stalwart resolve, he successfully stayed the course, but his playing often sounded strained, not sufficiently relaxed for phrasing to come lightly or elegantly. This was a pity, for the precedent of Mozart hovered deftly in the background. The hints of future ripeness in Strauss fell more readily under Wheeler’s fingers. The orchestra accompanied skilfully and discreetly.
Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was an exultant triumph, showing, with dazzling brightness, how Dvořák was also an exuberant colourist, a painter or rainbows. The performance glowed with tints of simple, earth-hugging focus, Bohemian folk-music was never far away – whether in the dark opening, the dancing that followed, the shaded, wooded repose of the slow movement, the swift, sombre stream in the forest depths, the dappled sunlit waltz and the trumpet-call – not to arms but to feet – as dancing and merrymaking whirled the day’s sunlight from overhead noon to beating-down afternoon, ever faster, louder, more joyously and more emphatically.
Credit to the meticulous preparation: every bar of ‘The Royal Hunt and Storm’ declared; likewise, every bar of the Eighth Symphony sang.