Sarah Willis, First Lady of the French Horn | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Sarah Willis, First Lady of the French Horn
The Berlin Phil's only woman on brass goes solo
No woman has ever achieved a higher profile on the French horn than Sarah Willis. Why? It's not as if she is a renowned soloist. But she is the first and only woman to join the brass section of the world's most celebrated and widely followed orchestra. It will be no surprise if this Saturday the BBC cameras as usual pick her out from row upon row of Teutonic males in the second of the Berlin Philharmonic’s two Prom 2010 appearances. But in addition to her Berliner duties, this year Willis has stepped out from under the orchestra’s giant shadow for the first time.
She has recorded a CD of chamber music. Trio! is available on Musik Alexander, the bespoke label of Gebr. Alexander of Mainz who have been supplying horns to the Berlin Phil since time immemorial. It features three pieces for horn, violin and piano: Brahms’s incomparable trio; a transcription of Mozart’s quintet for horn, violin, two violas and cello – known as “das Leitgebische” in honour of Josef Leutgeb, the horn player for whom Mozart would later write the four concertos; and a playful bauble by Duvernoy. The CD also features Cordelia Höfer on piano and Kotowa Machida on violin. Read Graham Rickson’s rave review on theartsdesk here.
For those of us who follow the horn world, Willis’s emergence as a soloist is a surprising development. She has played in the Berlin Phil's wind ensembles before, and its horn ensembles - most notably on Opera!, a CD of operatic pieces recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic horn section in 2007 (pictured right). The instrument has few enough male soloists making a career in Europe or America, but female soloists have historically been thin on the ground. For 20 years Willis has been content to play second horn. Why has it taken her so long to step into the limelight?
The Horns of the Berlin Philharmonic perform Rossini's "La Danza", including a low horn solo from Sarah Willis
“There are so many wonderful pieces for the horn”, she says, “but somehow I ended up being an orchestral player specialising in the low range, so one gets out of the habit of playing solos. So for me to stand up and play a solo takes a lot of preparation - physically and mentally - and I always end up doubting myself, which is tiring and annoying. I wish I was different. But I have always loved to play the Brahms and the combination with Kotowa and Cordelia just works. They both are incredible chamber musicians and also breathe with me - luxury for a horn player. They can also play so powerfully that I never have to worry about drowning them out. We just decided to record it for ourselves.”
The Brahms trio has a particular place in the composer’s emotional biography. Brahms’s father played the horn for the Hamburg militia for 36 years, so young Johannes grew up with the sound of the natural horn in the house, and for all his life he would dismiss its cousin with new-fangled valves. He once referred to it as a “brass viola”. Brahms duly turned to the instrument for the purposes of lamentation. The death of his mother in 1865 inspired two works: A German Requiem, and the inexpressibly mournful horn trio. One morning soon after she died her son was walking in the Black Forest “and as I came to this spot”, he wrote in a letter, “the sun shone out and the subject immediately suggested itself”.
I was afraid I would start to doubt my interpretation if I listened to the many recordings“It is the trio every horn player wants to and should play. It's not only an incredible piece of music with a mixture of joy and deep sadness in it but it is also written perfectly for the horn: Brahms really knew how to show off the horn at its best. It is the most substantial piece of chamber music written for the horn in the 19th century. The combination of horn, violin and piano had never been used before so it was also an important step for our horn repertoire.”
Of the many recordings available, the ones that stand out are (of course) by Dennis Brain, also Wolfgang Tomboeck on the Vienna Philharmonic’s single F pumpenhorn and, on the valveless natural horn, the American soloist Lowell Greer. So how does anyone manage to say anything new? Willis was careful to give them a wide berth.
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