STRAUSS: Horn Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings* / Marie Luise Neunecker, French hornist; *Ian Bostridge, tenor; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra; Ingo Metzmacher, conductor / EMI 5099972354759
While listening to our local classical insomnia-inducing radio station a week or so ago, my cousin actually heard a recording that woke her up and blew her away. It was the Strauss Second Horn Concerto, the one that Dennis Brain played as if he didn’t care and would much rather have been driving his sports car or reading a racing magazine, by a horn player she couldn’t quite catch the name of. So I pulled up the radio station’s playlist for the day and discovered the name:
Marie Luise Neunecker.
Sorry to sound naïve, but honestly, I’d never heard of her in my life. Aubrey Brain, Dennis Brain, Peter Damm and Hermann Baumann, check. Barry Tuckwell, check (I even saw Tuckwell live once). A few other names along the way, also check. But Neunecker? I had no idea who she was. So I checked her out online, and was completely blown away. What a gorgeous tone, and what a thrilling attack! Moreover, she plays as if she never takes a breath. Does she use circular breathing? I don’t know, but it sounds like it.
Now, it would be easy to say that Neunecker achieves her effects by playing the music with accents somewhat different from those in the score…easy, but not true. On the contrary, she plays exactly what Strauss wrote, but she does so in a manner that enlivens the fast passages and brings elegance and warmth to the slow ones. She is both a poet of her instrument, as Dennis Brain was, and a stupendous technician, which Hermann Baumann was (and, I think, still is). This places her, for me, at the very top of her profession. So the question then comes, Why isn’t she world-famous as they are?
Probably because she’s a woman and, although a nice-looking woman, not particularly striking or stunningly beautiful. If you’re a man you don’t have to look like a movie star to make it, but if you’re a woman you almost have to be a ravishing beauty, like Susan Graham and Rachel Barton Pine are, in order to become a superstar. Oh yes, there have been a few exceptions, among them Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, but they are the rarities.
Neunecker combines a bright tone, enthusiasm, sensitivity and fantastic technique. She sounds as if she were born with a horn in her mouth; her playing is that natural. Watching her on YouTube, I notice that she uses a 2/3 top – 1/3 bottom embouchure on the mouthpiece, which probably gives her great control. But when does she breathe? She never appears to take the horn away from her mouth when playing, nor do I notice her taking little quick breaths.
As for this performance of the Britten Serenade, it is quite good. Unlike Dennis Brain, who in the original recording overshot the high A-flat (which is very difficult to play on an open horn anyway) and played a B-flat, Neunecker gives us what is written. Ian Bostridge, here at an early stage of his career, has a much more pleasant tone and better breath control than one heard later on from him. The performance just misses greatness, but it is quite fine nonetheless.
If you have any fondness for the Strauss Horn Concertos, this is surely the recording to acquire. It will, simply, blow you away.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley