Martin Owen plays Strauss, Schumann, Weber. © 2023 Chandos Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

A Must-have Disc

Martin Owen plays Strauss, Schumann and Weber, strongly recommended by GERALD FENECH

'Martin Owen's command of this repertoire is just staggering, and his sheer virtuosity is nothing short of breathtaking.'


This magnificent Chandos release is the debut album, in a planned series, of the versatile British horn player, Martin Owen, and what an auspicious start it is. Absolutely riveting as regards choice of programme and execution, Owen's selected menu of concertante works chart the development of the instrument in German-speaking countries through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This exciting journey sets off with Robert Schumann's Konzertstück for 4 Horns (1849), a spectacular piece that takes your breath away.

Listen — Schumann: Lebhaft – (Konzertstück)
(CHAN 20168 track 1, 0:03-0:28) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

In three movements, the outer ones are saturated with an ebullience of the utmost beauty, while the central 'Romanze', with its gentle flowing melodies, captures the melancholic nature of Schumann's inner spirit, which was so inherent all throughout his life.

After all this excitement, the programme turns to Carl Maria von Weber and several years back. The Concertino in E minor for horn and orchestra was written in 1806, but was later revised by the composer in 1815. Listening to this graceful piece one gets the impression that Weber's intension was to write something modest, but on repeated listening it reveals itself to have much more impact. This concertino has an introduction and three short movements running without pause, but despite being written for the natural horn, it makes immense demands on the soloist. No problem for Owen here; indeed he absolutely surmounts all obstacles with expressive panache, particularly in the exquisite central 'Recitativo' and the final lively 'Polacca' which concludes the piece with light-hearted joy.

Listen — Weber: Polacca (Concertino in E minor)
(CHAN 20168 track 7, 0:00-0:56) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

The rest of the programme is devoted to the two contrasting Horn Concertos by Richard Strauss composed sixty years apart, in 1882-1883 and 1942. The first was written when Strauss was still a teenager and he composed it explicitly for his father Franz, who was a virtuoso horn-player.

The second is the fruit of Strauss's musical maturity and this time he also had his father in mind. By this time Franz was already dead so Richard composed it in his memory. By the 1940s Strauss had completely abandoned his previous style, which included programmatic tone-poems and operas, and his works started to embrace the 'absolute genre'.

Incidentally, even the first concerto of sixty years back is in the 'absolute' genre, as during the early 1880s Strauss had not yet embarked on the tone-poems and operas for which he is so famous. In this respect, the two concertos resemble each other, but what really inspired them was the Romantic streak that flourished in the nineteenth century. The first concerto has more than just a nod at Schumann and Mendelssohn, and the music alternates between 'cantabile passages' and more spirited ones.

The second concerto was written during the Second World War, when Strauss was witnessing the destruction of the life he held dear. Indeed, this is a work brimming with glorious inventiveness and the knowledge of a wonderful and experienced composer and conductor. Much of Strauss's later music is punctuated by a wistful atmosphere that makes it so accessible to audiences in general. Here it is coupled with a gently sensuality that gives this concerto a telling sense of profundity.

Martin Owen's command of this repertoire is just staggering, and his sheer virtuosity is nothing short of breathtaking. Still, what impressed me most is the singing tone of the 'cantabile' passages, which Owen delivers with arresting beauty.

There is impassioned support from Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic, and Christopher Parks, Alec Frank-Gemmill and Sarah Willis (horns) in the Schumann piece, and this is captured in immaculate sound. This is a must-have disc for horn music enthusiasts and fans of symphonic music alike. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 27 August 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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