This would appear to be the solo debut on CD of the young Maltese hornist, Etienne Cutajar. Born in 1983, he has been third horn with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since July 2006 and is also solo horn with the recently founded Carnyx Brass group. Based on this recording, Cutajar seems to have the chops as a soloist, and his technique, especially in the modern works, leaves little to be desired. However, I found him rather overbearing in the Romantic works, particularly in the Schumann Adagio and Allegro, a piece common to many horn recitals. He tones down in the Damase, a delightful bit of French fluff well accompanied by the harp. Still, a bit of vibrato and lighter tone would not have been out of place here. He seems to be much more at home in Maxwell Davies’ Sea Eagle, a tour-de-force for solo horn that is a real test of technique. The work initially reminded me of the Interstellar Call from Messiaen’s Aux canyons des étoiles, but on comparison I found the Maxwell Davies to outstay its welcome. The Messiaen accomplishes a great deal more in drama and atmosphere in its 7½ minutes compared to the more than 10-minute Sea Eagle. Nevertheless, Cutajar is impressive here. I did not have access to the score, however, and so can base my comments only on what I heard.
Direct comparison of the Strauss Alphorn with William Barnewitz’s recording (AVIE AV2126), which I reviewed earlier, is enlightening. While I liked Barnewitz’s warmer tone and use of vibrato, I prefer the balance among the three performers here. The mezzo soloist, Clara Mouriz, is less operatic than Jennifer Holloway on the Barnewitz recording and has a lyrical tone much more suitable to the music. John Reid’s piano also sounds much better than Carol Anderson’s on the other recording. And here Cutajar blends in well and is not at all overbearing. Both performances have their considerable strengths, but of the two I might just give this one the palm.
The Poulenc Élégie has been recorded many times and is one of this composer’s darkest chamber works. He composed it in 1957 in memory of Dennis Brain. I am most familiar with Günter Högner and James Levine’s recording on DG which adds a whole two minutes onto Cutajar’s timing (11:08 vs. 9:08). The differences are telling. Högner and Levine are much more dramatic with the work than Cutajar and Reid, who play it in rather straightforward fashion with less dynamic contrast. Both approaches are valid, but the sadness of the music is all the more telling in the Högner recording.
The last major work on the CD is by fellow Maltese, Charles Camilleri, whose music I had not heard before. The work is a three-movement sonata that lasts about a quarter of an hour. Camilleri dedicated his work to Cutajar, who gave its first performance in April 2004. It has a variety of tempos and meters throughout its three movements. As the booklet notes state, the horn in called on for various effects, including “stopped notes, directing the bell towards the strings of the piano and ‘in air’, rapid tonguing, trills, non vibrato and glissando.” The work puts Cutajar through his paces and one can assume his performance is authoritative. That said, I found little enough original or inviting in the sonata to make me want to hear it very often.
The disc concludes with an arrangement by Etienne Cutajar for horn and harp of Fauré’s much-loved Pavane. The arrangement works rather well. Again here I think a bit of vibrato would have enhanced the rather plain performance, and there is surely one instance at 3:55 where his high note should have been retaken. The harp, though, adds a really nice touch. All in all, I would have to view this disc as work-in-progress. Cutajar shows considerable promise as a soloist, but the results here are rather mixed.