The master hangs up his horn of plenty

Barry Tuckwell has been called the 'Heifetz of the horn', such are his virtuosity and sheer agility on one of the most difficult instruments there is. On the eve of his farewell London appearance, Edward Seckerson discovers what makes him the best player alive, bar none
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The Independent Online
"The horn, the horn, the lusty horn/Is not a thing to laugh, to scorn." It was a wise man who wrote those words. Shakespeare, actually. As You Like It, Act 4, scene 2. Some say the horn was created by God in his wrath, a practical joke, a cruel hoax, not so much an instrument, more a chronic case of outdoor plumbing. Around 20 feet of it (as things currently stand), coiled and cursed with all manner of acoustical problems. A player's lips come into contact with the mouthpiece, their embouchure - the manner of their application - sets a column of air in motion, the mysteries of the harmonic series come into play. Notes out of thin air - literally. Time and technology have failed to make the process any easier or more reliable. The appliance of science has only complicated matters. When God added valves to the natural horn, he merely perpetuated his earlier joke. More plumbing, new problems. The music goes round and round and, if you're lucky, it comes out here.

But if, and when, it comes out here, there is magic to do. No other brass instrument is capable of greater range (two octaves below middle C to almost two octaves above it) or variety of tone. From nature's noblest calling to its nastiest cawing. Its mellowest legatos evoke open space, romance, misty eyes surveying distant horizons, a nostalgic or atavistic quality suggestive of medieval forests and venerable sorcerers. At full force, its brassiness comes triumphantly, implacably, to the fore. Muted, it can be the quietest and most elusive sound in music; hand-stopped, its snarl can freeze the blood. Those who master its full range of colour and expression - and they are a select and intrepid few - are accorded special respect, even awe, amongst musicians. Those who go further, to achieve international status, are idolised.

Barry Tuckwell, one of only a handful of names to spring to mind in free association with the instrument, has been called the "Jascha Heifetz of the horn" - a comparison which alludes to his agility on an instrument notorious for being anything but: "It's a little like driving a fast car on an oily road," says Tuckwell, "bloody hard work and horribly unpredictable ... Funny, when I first picked up a horn, it seemed to come so naturally to me. It's been uphill ever since."

Ever since he was 13, that is. Tuckwell was born in Melbourne, Australia, a third-generation descendant of Welsh immigrants. All his family were musical, all had perfect pitch. He could read music before he could read words. He learnt piano and violin to begin with, then, briefly (when his feet could reach the pedals), the organ. A friend lent him the horn. And such was his natural aptitude for it that he was playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra a matter of months after taking it up.

Tuckwell left Australia for Britain in 1950 and, five years later (via the Halle, the Scottish National and Bournemouth Symphony orchestras), he was installed as principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was 24. He remained with them - a colourful and charismatic presence - through some golden years of change (1955-1968) before finally going it alone. He remains the most recorded horn-player in history, the inspiration behind more than 20 works for the instrument by major contemporary composers. His listing in the Grove Dictionary of Music dubs him "the leading horn- player of his generation" - which is about as unequivocal as Grove gets. One German critic was moved to say of him: "If the hunter had played like this, the deer would have died from ecstasy."

Tuckwell is 65 now and poised to hang up his horn for good. Tomorrow, at the Proms, he makes his final London appearance as a soloist - the halfway-point, and probably the climax, of a nine-month Farewell Tour. Appropriately enough, he has chosen one old favourite - Mozart's Third Concerto - and a soon-to-be modern classic (if its dedicatee is to be believed) by Oliver Knussen. It seems like as good a time as any to quit while he is ahead. At 65, he is quite old for a brass-player, though provided the teeth and gums hold out and the general level of fitness is high (sinus problems, allergies, and cold sores are definitely to be avoided), horn- players, rather like marathon-runners, just keep on running.

It doesn't get any easier, of course. Well, it does and it doesn't. Knowledge helps. Knowing how to pace yourself, knowing how much to practise, how much breath to use, how much to conserve, knowing that technical details neglected in practice will always come back to haunt you. "Horn-playing is a form of athletics as well as art - you keep in training, you maintain your form, you get better. The difficulties of the instrument keep you on your toes, you can never, ever, afford to get complacent

Not that a good horn-player (any more than the proverbial workman and his tools) would ever dream of blaming his instrument. Tuckwell recalls being involved in a workshop, a kind of "blind tasting" where top-class players were invited to demonstrate instruments of varying quality. "Two things came out of that: the player's personality always came through regardless, and you could never identify the really inferior instruments because these players were determined to play well on them."

Professional pride. The pride of instruments demands it. It's a quality the horn-player likes to feel separates him from the lower orders. If he is an orchestral player, and sitting in the hot seat - the first horn seat - as Tuckwell did for so many years, then the weight of responsibility, the big solos, are his. It is he, or she, who sets the tone, the atmosphere (or otherwise) of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto in B flat. Of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. It is he, or she, who gets to steal into the limelight at the beginning of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. "The horn enters over a very soft tremolo in the strings. There should really be no beginning to that first note, it should somehow just be there, in the air, which is very difficult - and very risky - to achieve. But that's what it's all about. Risk. You can get by playing it a little louder for safety, but it won't be worth tuppence musically ... Everything on the horn is difficult if you want to make music of it. Look at Weber's Oberon overture: three notes in the middle register, the best register, piece of cake - but if you want to play them poetically and set about transforming the whole performance ..."

A defining moment for Tuckwell was hearing the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich play the Schumann Concerto. "Benjamin Britten was conducting the LSO and I was sat, as ever, in the first horn seat. The cello part starts off with one long note, and I'll never forget it as long as I live. He did a Slava on it. It was unreal. Instant magic. And, try as I might, I couldn't analyse what he did or how he did it. I've often fantasised about organising a One Note Competition - you can play any note you like at any dynamic and any length - just to see what people would make of it."

But magic aside, Tuckwell is a plain-speaking, down-to-earth Aussie, and he can be practical, too. He knows that if you're playing Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe ("wall of death") or Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, you have to be. You get wise, you learn to delegate to your "bumper" (that's the extra player sitting to the left of the first horn whose job it is to offer support and relief) to ensure "a fresh lip" for those difficult high-lying passages. The upper reaches, or "partials", of the horn's compass are especially treacherous, so close together that the lips have difficulty in discriminating between them. There's a killer solo, a duet with flute (and a classic audition piece), in the Shostakovich. The audience holds its breath; hopefully, the player does not. Tuckwell says the trick here is not to be tempted into playing the hefty horn-led unison which precedes it. "We all love to join in for that one, but it's the wrong lip for the solo. The wise player takes a moment or two to adjust. Even then, there are no guarantees."

So it doesn't get easier, but you learn more "tricks". Horn-playing, says Tuckwell, is a constant balancing act between craft and creativity, accuracy and inspiration. "You learn to adapt your performance to the limitations of the moment, to live dangerously as opposed to recklessly. If I am about to launch into the Prologue or Epilogue of the Britten Serenade (for Tenor, Horn, and Strings), I'll know straight away if my lip is responsive or not. If the road's wet, you exercise a little more caution." The Epilogue takes place off-stage, and thereby hangs one of Tuckwell's many tall tales. For this particular performance he had positioned himself in an elevator so the sound could waft magically into the shaft above him. Well, it did until someone on the top floor pushed the call button. "Everybody was very impressed with the diminuendo but puzzled as to why I never reappeared to take my bow."

In all his years "on the road" as a soloist, Tuckwell sorely missed the camaraderie, the sense of belonging which came of being an orchestral player. Plus, of course, the best seat in the house to study the work of great conductors as diverse as Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Istvan Kertesz, Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, George Szell. "Most orchestral musicians have a baton in their knapsack," he says. "I was no exception." In 1982, he founded the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. And that's where he now resides - a citizen of the United States - in Hagerstown, Maryland.

The enduring memory of Barry Tuckwell leading the LSO horns is one of showmanship and flamboyance, the bell of his instrument raised high and proud regardless of whether the composer demanded it or not. "Oh, I think you've got to be a bit of a ham to be a natural section leader. I'll admit I sometimes crossed the barriers of good taste..."

The closing measures of Pierre Monteux's recording of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony?

"How did you guess?"

Because it's something of a collectors' item. Because that split-second of indulgence, that rudely executed swoop-and-scoop into the coda is not something you'll find indicated in the score.

"I got worked up."

Tuckwell still thinks it remarkable that four such strong individuals should have melded into such a great section. But they did. The LSO horns of Tuckwell's day didn't mix much socially after hours, but professionally, they always stuck together. It was ever thus. "Horn-players have evolved a kind of freemasonry over the years. A fierce sense of loyalty. If someone is having a bad night, the others will do what they can to cover him. Because nobody, but nobody, else really understands our problems." Or humour. The "Velcro cummerbund", for instance, was an essential accessory in Tuckwell's day. If one of their number was poised for an important solo, a deep intake of breath from the others would bring about the desired effect.

Ask Tuckwell who most influenced him as a player, and four names are instantly forthcoming. Gottfried von Freiburg, then principal of the Vienna Philharmonic, for his rich golden-syrupy tone; Aubrey Brain for his "patrician" quality; Tommy Dorsey for his effortless turning of phrase. And, of course, Dennis Brain (son of Aubrey), revered, in his short lifetime for just about everything. "For a while, there was no life after Dennis. It was almost heresy to want to play the instrument at all. And if you did, the comparisons were unforgiving. You'd have to have been a fool not to be influenced by him. But Dennis was Dennis, the young English gentleman..." And Tuckwell is Tuckwell, the audacious Aussie. "I suppose I like to think of myself as more of an eclectic..." That he is. The horn of plenty.