Tuesday 19 November 2019

G'day to the world's greatest horn player

The clarion call of the triumphant opening to the concluding movement of Mozart's 4th Horn Concerto must be one of the most recognisable pieces of music ever written. It's just perfect, for in its vibrant simplicity it captures the essence of what this instrument, the essential piece of the old huntsman's kit, is all about.

And if that rondo, which rounds off a gloriously exuberant exploration, is the quintessential horn solo, there's a contemporary musician whose interpretation is the definitive one.

If there's a recording of this Mozart masterpiece in your collection, the chances are the performer is the Australian virtuoso Barry Tuckwell, probably the greatest horn player in the world, who is 80 today.

Barry Tuckwell was born into a musical family in Melbourne. He learned piano and violin. He also played the organ, but his fingers weren't really agile enough. Barry's older sister Patricia -- later the Countess of Harewood when she became the second wife of a first cousin of the Queen of England -- was a violinist in the Sydney Symphony. One of her colleagues in the orchestra suggested the younger Tuckwell might try the horn.

Now, the French horn, to give it the handle it tends to go by, is notoriously demanding. A pianist, with the audience absorbed in the beautiful complexities of a concerto, can play a series of bum notes and nobody will really notice. Blow a wrong 'un on the horn, though, and there's nowhere to hide.

But Barry took to it like a duck to water. He has recalled that he found it quite easy. It's not like the piano, it's just one note at a time, and you only have to worry about five lines on the treble clef -- what would be the right hand on the keyboard.

Within two years of starting the horn, when he was still only 15, he was playing in the Melbourne Symphony. By the time he was 20, he'd had three years as principal in Sydney behind him. At 24, he became first horn player in the London Symphony.

Barry Tuckwell left the horn desk in London to do his own thing. Not only did he seal his status as world number one, he carved out a career as a conductor.

He's still active, and involved in running horn camps for up-and-coming players.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning


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