Rhinegold Publishing

Recording Mozart's Horn concertos

6:15, 30th October 2014

That first encounter with microphones can be unnerving for any musician. Horn player Pip Eastop relives the moment

[This is an extended version of an article that appears in the November issue of CM]

For technical reasons I am standing in a puddle when it begins. A whole year of preparation is suddenly in the past and now it has to happen &#8210 this performance. There were others before &#8210 concerts with live audiences &#8210 but they were preparations for this, the recording, the setting-in-stone, a performance to an audience not of people but of microphones. I have the feeling my entire life has been in preparation for these next few days.

"With such a dangerous instrument confidence is a precious necessity which can fray all too easily."
“With such a dangerous instrument confidence is a precious necessity which can fray all too easily.”

In Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E flat, K417, which has to be completed within our first day of recording, there are 24 bars of orchestral introduction during which I must avoid dwelling on such dizzying concepts. Better to stay focused on the practicalities of the job in hand. These are: keeping the horn warm at all times, keeping a firm enough left hand grip that the rapid movements of my right hand inside the bell flare won’t jog my lip and throw me off notes, remembering always to do that special thing with the breath which makes almost everything come out a bit better, performing always as if to a real live audience and trying not to derail myself with whispered discouragements into my own ear. With such a dangerous instrument confidence is a precious necessity which can fray all too easily.

The first four bars of the orchestral intro are miraculous and my favourite moment in all of Mozart. I could happily loop it and listen to that spine-tingling, shimmering, pulsating announcement forever &#8210 never getting closer than 20 bars before I have to commit myself.

My handhorn is made of paper-thin brass and all 14ft of its length must be kept warm or it will play flat. If I tune it unwarmed it will go sharp as I play. The narrow tube is cold metal and my breath is warm steam so I am continuously fuelling a very efficient condenser which conjures pure water out of thin air at the rate, it seems, of a gallon per hour, all of which pools inside the horn’s coils and must be constantly tipped out on to the floor. It is a chilly patch in mid-October and the church, All Saints’, East Finchley, chosen for its perfect acoustic properties, is as draughty and cold as the foggy streets outside.

The red light is on and producer and recording engineer Adrian Hunter speaks via the talkback system: ‘Take one’. Anthony Halstead fixes the tempo in his mind and with a couple of elegantly exact baton swoops launches the Hanover Band. It begins.

In fact, the real beginning was several years ago in the form of a project dreamed up by my friend, Laurie Watt. I first met Laurie in The Kensington Philharmonic Orchestra where I was a temporary trumpet player and where he regularly played horn. I had somehow got myself involved as guest principal trumpet (it’s a long story) and the orchestra’s management had helped me to stay incognito by getting my name wrong in the listings. To each other Laurie and I seemed somehow familiar but could not for a while work out why. My trumpet-player disguise was one confounding factor and my being unaware that Laurie was a horn player was another. I was at that time working quite a lot with London Philharmonic Orchestra where Laurie was often to be seen in his capacity both as legal advisor and devoted supporter.

It was through my work with LPO and the funny coincidence of meeting him in my role as undercover trumpet player that I got to know Laurie well and we soon developed a close friendship. As my new avuncular benefactor and source of tremendous encouragement, Laurie suggested I should record Mozart’s horn concertos. I thought it a great idea but only wanted to do it using handhorn, not the modern horn. Laurie got to work on his vast number of contacts in the musical world, worked his magic, and soon we had a workable plan. We would record the horn concertos with Hanover Band and the quintet with Eroica String Quartet. The recording of the Quintet came first, it being the easiest to organise.

We have hired six gas heaters, one of which I hog all to myself. I am standing close enough that its upward flowing warmth bathes my instrument. My trousers are in danger of ignition but I am risking that rather than allowing the horn to go cold even for a second. Water condensing and pooling inside the narrow coils of a handhorn quickly alters its voice from heroic to bronchitic, so I will spend these four recording days enlarging the puddle in which I stand; playing, tipping-out, warming, tipping-out, warming, playing, tipping-out.

My entrance is approaching fast. I brace myself, plant my feet, clear my mind, quickly tip out one last time and blow one last puff of warming steam into the horn, and then &#8210 it all stops. There are bowings and dynamic markings to discuss for the intro section and quick scribblings on orchestral parts. Adrian Hunter emerges, following the pathway of shiny cables to us from his distant bunker, adjusts the height and placing of some of his microphones and disappears. There is more tuning and fidgeting and then we hear Adrian’s voice again: ‘Take two’.

"It’s almost an out-of-the-body experience as my own hyper-critical built-in audience steps back to listen" - Pip Eastop
“It’s almost an out-of-the-body experience as my own hyper-critical built-in audience steps back to listen” – Pip Eastop

I am privileged to be with the most excellent colleagues. To have the friendly genius of Anthony Halstead, a legendary handhorn player and our conductor in charge of this recording project is the greatest comfort imaginable to me. Peter Hanson, violinist and leader, has spent the past 25 years studying historical performance practice and the last couple of years working with me in finding ways to translate the essence of classical phrasing into a workable language for handhorn. In the Hanover Band we have a hand-picked period orchestra of the utmost skill and dedication.

At almost an hour into the session I have been repeatedly galvanising myself for bar 25 and not quite getting there. I’m exhausted and haven’t yet played a note! Eventually, though, the moment does arrive and suddenly I am playing and very much in the spotlight. It’s almost an out-of-the-body experience as my own hyper-critical built-in audience steps back to listen. It is the habit of a lifetime of intense practice and self-correction and it is difficult now to let that go and accept what comes without fussing over detail. The first really tricky bit approaches &#8210 semi-quavers racing up to and back down from the highest notes Mozart ever demanded of his horn-playing friend, Joseph Leutgeb. Phew, that was lucky &#8210 so far so good. The first solo section ends, so I tip my nice warm horn out again, rotating it through a new wave of cold air wafting down from the belfry. It immediately fills with water.

Through the centuries of horn development since Mozart, the ancestral hand horn did not disappear. It remained, as it was in the 18th century, possibly the most perfect of all instruments in its simple emulation of natural forms such as cow horns or large sea shells. It is literally nothing more than a long, narrow, conical brass tube with a small hole in which to blow at one end and a bigger hole where the sound emerges at the other end. It starts at a diameter of about 8mm (about one third of an inch) and continuously widens along its length until it ends with a dramatic widening into a flared bell of about one foot in diameter. For convenience and comfort hand horns are coiled into loops and are traditionally played with the bell held to the right, pointing backwards and to the side at about waist level. These days we call it the “natural horn”, or “hand horn”, to differentiate it from its modern descendant, the French Horn – a poorly named grandchild since there is nothing particularly French about it.

Despite the visual complexity of its convoluted plumbing, the modern valved horn can be understood simply as a combination of twelve differently lengthed hand horns into one super-instrument (perhaps “Dodecahorn” would be better name for it). The modern horn player switches instantly from one length to another by means of finger-operated valves. It is actually possible to play an entire Mozart horn concerto on just one of the twelve component instruments of a modern horn using hand horn techniques rather than by employing the valve mechanisms. However, this is not generally done because the merging of twelve instruments invariably causes a compromise in quality to each one.

The complexity of the modern horn conceals any resemblance to its ancient, organically-grown ancestors whereas the simplicity of the hand horn makes such a visual connection rather obvious. Although a spirally curved cone is a complex shape and difficult to make it is an easy structure to understand, being essentially a tube which gradually widens. Molluscs and cows grow their curved cones unconsciously but humans have needed many centuries of development to learn first how to copy and then to extend the concept, fabricating delicate coils of accurately tapered metal tubing far greater in length than animal horns. Historically, advances in musical instrument metalworking technology have been driven by this need to make horns longer than those provided by nature. The extra length is desired because short, naturally-occurring horns allow only the lowest note of the harmonic series to be played (the so-called “fundamental”), all the other ones being too high to play comfortably. Many ancient cultures understood this a very long time before the baroque and classical periods. Trumpets of bronze, silver and gold were discovered in Tutenkhamun’s tomb and the Romans used brass and copper horns and trumpets for military purposes. In the bronze age the Celts had their “carnyx”, the Scandinavians had their “lur” and in Ireland they made fabulous bronze horns shaped like those of the now extinct giant bison.

During the time of Mozart, hand horns were available in a range of 15 different lengths, from the shortest in the key of C-alto at slightly longer than eight feet (2.54meters), to the longest in Bb-basso at an impressive nineteen feet (5.72meters). The length, or key, favoured by Mozart was somewhere in the middle, the Eb horn, at about fourteen feet long. The instrument used in this recording is a modern copy, of an 1830 Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, made in Bavaria by Engelbert Schmid.

We endeavour to record long takes but noises often thwart our progress: aeroplanes, honking cars, the slapping gurgle of water in my horn. We re-record sections, some of them many times, fixing intonation, balance, tempi, ensemble, and my errors. Sometimes all I hear are my damned errors, but there’s a danger in becoming so occupied by technical issues that Mozart’s effortless lines will not float. Somebody once said, ‘To play the handhorn is to wrestle with nature’ (actually, it was me). It is also known as ‘natural horn’ but I have many other, unprintable, names for it.

At the end of four days, seven three-hour sessions and 11 movements, we are finished. Adrian has everything he needs to produce an edited master recording of Mozart’s four great horn concertos. All I want to do is collapse to the floor (avoiding the huge puddle) and weep with relief.

034571280974Pip Eastop’s Mozart horn concertos CD for Hyperion will be released on 5 January 2015

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