Solo works for French horn and piano performed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician David Griffin
Review from Fanfare Magazine Nov/Dec 2010:
Years ago, not a great deal was expected from a fourth horn player in an orchestra, even a major one like Boston, New York or Chicago. He (in those days it was always a he) was expected to provide a solid foundation to the section and power in the lower range (something “high horn” players could not always manage). He almost never got a chance to play a solo; even the long, glorious passage in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth was usually taken away from him by the principal player of the section.
Well, times have changed. Fourth horn players in many orchestras now possess the agility, versatility and musicianship to play any other part as well, including principal. In an orchestra of the standard of the Chicago Symphony, you can bet the fourth horn player there is world-class both as a musician and a technician. Such is the case with David Griffin, who has been in that position since 1995. “I love my fourth-horn job,” says Griffin, “but I need to do recitals too in order to keep my skills from deteriorating.” Strangely enough, even though the brass section of the CSO has been its pride and glory for nearly half a century, I know of just one other recital program on disc by a member of that orchestra’s horn section (Gail Williams). This makes Griffin’s effort all the more welcome.
The hour-long program includes several pieces every horn player knows, beginning with Bozza’s bright-‘n-breezy En Forêt, which takes as its point of departure the big hunting horn call from Respighi’s Feste romane. This provides a splendid opportunity for a virtuosic show for the instrument. Both Dukas’ Villanelle and Saint-Saëns’ Romance reveal Griffin’s musicality at its best, replete with limpid phrasing and glowing tone.
There are also some rarities and the world premiere recording of the Broughton sonata. “This is repertoire that I have enjoyed playing in recitals over the last few years, says Griffin. “With the Broughton sonata as the focal piece, the rest of the CD is a rough approximation of a full-length program.”
Bruce Broughton, a former horn player himself, is an extremely prolific composer of Hollywood film scores (Silverado, Lost in Space, Tombstone, Young Sherlock Holmes) and television soundtracks (Hawaii Five-0, Dallas, How the West Was Won). Broughton’s film experience shows in the sonata’s opening page – a long-breathed, sumptuously lyrical line for the horn that floats and soars over the piano as if to suggest a leisurely flight through fluffy white clouds on a summer’s day. Thereafter Broughton presents an unending series of fascinating ideas, some developed, some not, but always engaging to the ear and well-written for the instrument.
Griffin handles the special difficulties of the low range with the assurance of, well, a good fourth-horn player, but he also soars (or sky-rockets, as the case may be) into the instrument’s stratosphere with the ease of a Dennis Brain. He maintains a lovely, pure sound evenly throughout a range of over three octaves; his middle range in particular has a haunting beauty (the instrument is a Lewis, with an Alexander flare bell). He also demonstrates the agility of a flute or a clarinet and never gives the impression anything is in the least difficult for him. But most importantly, among prominent horn players today, Griffin is one of the most innately musical I know. This quality elevates the disc to the realm of interest for all music lovers, not just horn players.
Pianists Patrick Gordon and Maureen Zoltek match Griffin in both technical matters and musicianship, performing as equal partners with the horn. The acoustic setting is a bit dry but live and vital. The only element missing from Griffin’s otherwise outstanding production is badly-needed program notes. In their absence, I contacted the artist for his comments on some of the lesser-known repertory. Of Broughton’s sonata he writes:
“The Sonata is a fine concert piece; it is not film music. I like the seemingly endless melodies and frequent color changes, especially the use of the stopped horn in the first movement. There is also a section in the middle movement requiring wide arpeggios to be played on the harmonic series (without valves) that is evocative of the ancient origins of the instrument. Many contemporary composers have abandoned melody which makes Broughton’s sonata stand out even more because he has not joined the erudite crowd that creates music for itself and to be enjoyed by intellectuals and mathematicians.
The piece is challenging in terms of endurance, and for my performances and this recording, I’ve made a few minor cuts and additions, transposed one passage down an octave, and ignored a tempo marking when necessary. I believe that my alterations have made the piece more approachable for horn players. Broughton said about my recording that ‘Whatever you did to the piece could be considered the way to play it from here on out.’
“The one-movement sonata by French composer Claude Pascal (b. 1921) is a little gem of a piece and stands up quite well next to better-known pieces like Dukas’ Villanelle and Bozza’s En Forêt.
“Composer Randy Faust is a friend of mine who teaches at Western Illinois University. He’s one of the best known people in the horn world for all the right reasons. In 1997 Randy got a call from the Dean of the Auburn School of Music to write something for a presentation. This piece is the response, a dramatic set of variations on “Amazing Grace,” which has special significance in the American South.
“I like the thought of the famous Russian horn player Vitaly Buyanovsky on tour in España during a time when very few Soviet citizens were allowed to travel. The result is Buyanovsky’s impression of Spain that includes church bells, hauntingly evocative melodies, perhaps a bull fight, and a flamenco dance with castanets, if you use your imagination.”
The Pilss piece is the middle and best movement of a lengthy sonata. Even though Pilss (1902-1979) lived in Vienna at a time when the musical world was rapidly changing, his music seems refreshingly behind the times to me. There are some great climaxes in the work.”
As for the title (For You), Griffin feels a recital is a giving experience. “Music is a gift for the listener and the performer should be as generous as possible in terms of expression, variety, and individuality. Hopefully, my CD conveys this. Also, I thought it would be funny to present my CD to friends and relatives and say, ‘This is for you. That'll be $15, please.” Robert Markow
Review from American Record Guide Jan/Feb 2011
"David Griffin is fourth horn of the Chicago Symphony, and listening to
this superb album should remind us to take proper notice of the
non-principal musicians in major orchestras. He opens with ‘En Foret’
(1941), Eugene Boz- za’s spectacular homage to the horn’s hunting
heritage. Also from the core repertory are Paul Dukas’s evocative
‘Villanelle’ (1906) and Camille Saint-Saens’s dreamy ‘Romance’ (1874).
If you are familiar with horn literature, you might also know Karl
Pilss’s well-crafted Intermezzo (from 3 Pieces in the form of a
Sonata, 1924) and Claude Pascal’s witty Horn Sonata (1963), plus the
difficult unaccompa- nied pieces by Randall Faust and Vitaly
The album’s centerpiece is the first record- ing of an 18-minute Horn
Sonata by Bruce Broughton (b 1945)—a tough, brawling, constantly
imaginative work by a composer whose bread and butter are film and
television scores. The harmonic language is tonal but quite colorful
and dissonant, and the horn part tests both high and low registers.
Griffin’s beefy, solid low register is very impressive, but it is what
we would expect from a major orchestra’s fourth-horn player. Thus it
is quite surprising to hear his concentrated tone quality and steely
high register—surprising, that is, until one learns that Griffin’s
professional experience includes service as a principal horn with
several orchestras (he is also a member of the fine woodwind quintet
Prairie Winds, Jan/Feb 2001: 245). It is very rare to hear such
complete assurance in the French horn’s entire pitch compass.
Fine piano work by Patrick Godon in the Bozza, Broughton, and
Saint-Saens; and by Maureen Zoltek in the Pascal, Dukas, and Pilss. No
notes; excellent sound.