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28.04.2021

  PLAYING AND RECORDING THE SYMPHONIES OF JOSEF HAYDN: PART 1

I will begin by regretting that this short essay is, of necessity, autobiographical.

Autobiographies are always untrustworthy in many ways. The 'mists of time' often lend enchantment, but equally, can magnify the more negative aspects of one's memory!

It's embarrassing to admit that in my very first job as a professional '1st horn' player, as principal in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, 1966-1970, I was so very unconfident of my ability to simply 'get the right notes', that I would often ask my wonderful 3rd horn colleague Jim Dowling to play 1st horn in a Haydn symphony that had a few high notes in it!  Thus, I 'diplomatically avoided' playing works such as Symphony 85 (horns in Bb alto), Symphony 49 and several others.

Symphony 87 in A was an exception. I loved this piece so much that when two of my 'musical heroes', the great harpsichordist George Malcolm and the polymath Graham Treacher conducted it, I somehow steeled myself to play it as well as I could.  George (bless him) rather devilishly wrote in 2 extra high  notes for the 1st horn near the end of the first movement, but to my shame, I left them out!

Sadly, I have no recollection of playing any Haydn symphonies at all during the 3+ years that I played with the London Symphony Orchestra, 1970-1973.

A few years after I joined the ECO (English Chamber Orchestra) in 1972-1973, the consummate 'polymath genius' who was then their most frequent guest conductor recorded, for a major company, a selection of Haydn's 'Sturm und Drang' works.

The series comprised symphonies 44-49, which were issued on LPs.  At the time, I found the conductor's interpretations of 44 and 49 very convincing, effective and moving. I also applauded his eschewal of an intrusive keyboard 'continuo', a misguided and unnecessary practice for these fully-harmonised middle period symphonies. 

But it was during the recording of 46 in B ('H') that I found myself totally at odds with the maestro.

He insisted that we horn players should selectively switch between playing  B in 'alto' to playing certain passages in 'B basso'. When I had the temerity to question this, and asked if we could stay in B alto all the time, he suddenly pointed to a very tricky passage in the last movement where the horns, playing in alto, were very high.

'OK, play, now!' he requested, giving us a downbeat before we were ready to play.

Of course, unprepared, we 'splattered' it, and he shrugged his shoulders, saying 'you see what I mean'!

I was so incensed by this that, somehow in those days, not sure how, in 1975, I tracked down the phone number of the Haydn scholar Antony Hodgson. I phoned him in the tea break of the recording session to try to get some moral support. Of course, the support was absolutely forthcoming from Tony Hodgson!    Since then, I have often pondered the phenomenon and dilemma of Haydn's 'high horn' writing, and I now think that there is no easy or generalised solution to the problem.   In this particular Symphony, 'B basso' horns sometimes takes the 2nd player lower than the bass line, but 'B alto' occasionally pushes the 1st horn higher than the 1st violins!   Sadly, until some genius invents a time machine, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we will probably never know the answer to this much-discussed question.

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26.03.2021:   ARNOLD COOKE'S  'Arioso and Scherzo' Quintet for horn, violin, 2 violas and 'cello.

I'd like to explain why this lovely piece means a great deal to me.

When I enrolled at the old Royal Manchester College of Music in 1962, to study piano, horn and composition, I had a very sketchy knowledge of so-called 'modern' music. Earlier that year, as a 17-year old horn player, I had passed 'with distinction' (much to my surprise), the A.B.R.S.M Grade 8 exam, in which one of the set pieces was Arnold Cooke's 'Rondo in B flat' for horn and piano.  I really liked that little masterpiece, probably because the horn part was not too demanding, since it avoided the high register of the instrument.  As a self-taught player, (before studying with Sydney Coulston),  I simply couldn't play the high notes, maybe because I was using only the F side of a cheap, poorly designed compensator whose Bb 4th valve was almost out of reach of my small left hand.

For many weeks after the exam, I had a constant 'earworm' of the piano's descending chains of lovely augmented chords, played while the horn was, as it were, 'resting' on pedal notes.

At some point during my first few weeks at the RMCM in 1962 I heard a college recital (or 'open practice', as they called it) by a near-contemporary horn player, Alun Francis (now a well-known conductor).  He played  Arnold Cooke's 'Nocturnes' for soprano, horn and piano.  I remember being overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, and the ensemble's performance of it. For several hours, before going home, I found myself walking the rather dilapidated Manchester streets around the old College, desperately trying to remember or 'replay' those songs before they disappeared from my memory.

My composition teacher at the RMCM was the 'almost beatific'  Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999).  During the first 'college year', one day I presented at my composition lesson a short piece for clarinet and piano that I had written for a friend, Geoffrey Haydock.  Tom carefully read through the MS, played a few passages on the piano (he was an excellent pianist) and then totally dumbfounded me by asking

“ Have you been playing or listening to any music by Arnold Cooke?”

“ I don't think so” I replied, “apart from his Nocturnes, recently”.

“He used to teach composition here before WW2” said Mr Pitfield.

Several months later, I wrote another woodwind piece, a Sonatina for oboe and piano, to which Tom reacted by saying something like 'Cooke / Hindemith 50/40, Halstead 10' !

By now I was almost desperate to learn exactly what it was, in my immature and struggling student pieces, that he had astutely identified, so as to make that judgement.

“You somehow slip into different keys 'by stealth' rather than by modulating”, he said, "and you use too many pivotal chords”.

 Wow, that was 'rich', coming from a superb craftsman composer, who in his huge output used 'pivotal harmony' much of the time!

Of course, I was a bit disenchanted by the realisation (not quite an 'accusation', because Tom was a kindly soul) that my little creations were rather derivative.  But at the same time I was quite flattered that he had heard some hints of Arnold Cooke in my pieces!

Over the next few years I tried very hard to align myself stylistically with a curious and probably indigestible blend of other composers I loved, such as Delius, Hindemith, Janacek, Moeran, Mompou, Nielsen, Ravel, Warlock and Vaughan Williams, as well as those of the 15th century:  Ciconia, de Lantins and Dufay.

Pretty well impossible!

Of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist I had long ago given up any notion of being 'original'.

So I tried to get to know as much of Cooke's music as possible, playing some of his organ pieces on Sundays, and listening to what was then the 'BBC Third Programme'.  I even learned both the piano and flute parts of his lovely Sonatina for the latter instrument. (NB: flute playing was for me a hobby rather than a serious study!).

As a free-lance horn player working in the 1970s to 1990s with ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta, I was exposed to an enormous 20th-century repertoire.  Sadly the only music from those years that I still remember with great joy, apart from the classic pieces by Schoenberg (whose 1st Chamber Symphony always gives me goose-bumps) and the composers of the 2nd Viennese School, is by (in alphabetical order): Blake (David), Goehr, Henze, Hindemith, Holloway, Ligeti and Lutyens.  I don't think the London Sinfonietta ever played any Cooke, as he was considered much too conservative.

It's now a matter of personal regret that I didn't seek out Arnold Cooke, in order to study with him, when I moved from Northern England to London 50 years ago.

I'm now looking forward to recording, as pianist,  his 'Arioso and Scherzo' in its Trio arrangement (by the composer) later this year, with the superb horn player Stephen Stirling and the violinist Christian Halstead (my son).

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