Alec Frank-Gemmill’s Recital Combines Superb Programming and Superb Delivery

United KingdomUnited Kingdom MacMillan, Beethoven, Casken, Schumann: Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Alasdair Beatson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 1.2.2016. (CC)

MacMillan, Since it was the day of Preparation: Motet V (2010/11)

Beethoven, Horn Sonata in F, Op. 17

Casken, Serpents of Wisdom (2015) World Premiere

Schumann, Adagio and Allegro in A flat, Op. 70

Alec Frank-Gemmill’s star is clearly in the ascendant. This recital was part of the Wigmore’s New Generation Artists series. When aged a mere 23, Frank-Gemmill was appointed Principal Horn of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; since then he has acted as guest Principal for the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. A remarkable achievement.

Well, he’s clearly fearless. This was a live broadcast on Radio 3, and he kicked off with a challenging solo piece by Sir James MacMillan; later in the same hour, he gave the World Premiere of a new work by John Casken, who was in the audience. The final work, by Schumann, included challenges of its own: a high C (sounding F) that scares off many; and repeated trips up to high B flat (sounding E flat). In Schumann’s chronology, the Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra was only just round the corner, after all, and that screams its way, more than once, all the way up to the high E above top C.

The MacMillan “Motet” is taken from Since it was the day of Preparation …, a sequel to his St John Passion. Each solo player (clarinet, horn, cello, harp and theorbo) has a solo “Motet” of its own. The player is given some amount of freedom and there are plenty of effects (an attempt to invoke “like a distant murmuring”, for example). I wish I had a score as, right at the back of the hall, it was difficult to work out if Frank-Gemmill was trying to play harmonics or not. Harmonics are notoriously difficult, but Weber wrote them into his Concertino, a work Frank-Gemmill has recorded to some acclaim for Linn Records (review). Whether he was or not – the score is not in the public domain, alas – what’s beyond doubt is his astonishing breath control and range: initially one gets the impression this work centres around low to mid range, but there’s a screamer later on. It was a tribute to Frank-Gemmill’s confidence that the performance gripped from first to last.

The Beethoven Horn Sonata is one of that great composer’s most under-rated works. A charming score, it is perfectly crafted and comes with a challenging piano part. Frank-Gemmill was remarkably eloquent throughout. He used a modern horn but played the opening fanfare all on the F-side so that all open notes were utilised; he shifted to the more secure B flat-side for the ensuing (valved) phrase but still altered his tone on those notes that would have been hand-stopped on a natural horn. The exposition repeat intact, the movement took on some heft. He was joined for this piece by pianist Alasdair Beatson, and the jury remains out as to whether that was a good thing or not. Beatson played the demanding part well, but had a nasty habit of unnecessarily lingering over dissonances. The second movement, if such it is – it’s basically a slow bridging passage – was a proper Andante but retained its lachrymose aura, while the finale exhibited Frank-Gemmill’s wonderful breath control. He’s not above adding the odd flourish to the given text, either, something that Alan Civil also used to enjoy in Mozart: was that an influence, one wonders?

John Casken wrote his Serpents of Wisdom (2015) for horn and piano especially for this occasion. Inspired by the poem Celtic Cross by Norman MacCaig, it was the idea of entwined, coiling serpents that brought the horn to the composer’s mind. The unison lines of the opening seemed to speak of a debt to Messiaen. His use of horn effects was more considered and natural than we had heard in the MacMillan piece, the use of stopped to open notes atmospheric and without a hint of the contrived. The horn’s long melodic lines (snaky?) enabled Frank-Gemmill to reveal a silky legato. Casken’s piece is coherent and interesting. One hopes this pair of performers will be putting it on disc at some point.

Finally, the Schumann. Tempi were extremely well chosen, the Adagio flowing beautifully, the octave slur to the high C perfectly managed, the whole without the slightest hint of lip tire. I do wonder, though, whether it was deliberate that Frank-Gemmill seemed to hit every harmonic on the way up to the top C? Whatever; the Allegro had a good swagger, and was not without moments of mystery. Most importantly, a proper sense of ebb and flow was in evidence throughout.

And, an encore, we were given Glazunov’s delicious Reverie, nicely shaded and with a perfect, liquid legato.

Frank-Gemmill’s technique is astonishing. Perhaps he expects it to be infallible though (it very nearly is): his dissatisfaction with a rare split note showed clearly in his face, which can put an audience on edge. There was not much else to quibble about here in a recital that combined superb programming and superb delivery.

Colin Clarke

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