For the first concert in its 75th anniversary year, the Philharmonia could have chosen no better way to celebrate than by putting the focus on the French horn. This instrument has defined the orchestra’s character since its foundation in 1945, when the great Dennis Brain became its first principal player, a role he held until his tragically early death twelve years later. The kernel of conductor (and former horn-player) Esa-Pekka Salonen’s programme was a pair of works with the instrument in a starring role: the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s horn concerto Towards Alba, and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The soloist was another in the Philharmonia’s distinguished line of principal horns, Richard Watkins, who held the chair for a decade in the 80s and 90s.

Richard Watkins and Mark-Anthony Turnage
© Courtesy of the Philharmonia

Towards Alba, although inspired by poems on the subject of dawn by Larkin and Donne, follows the conventional three-movement concerto form, with a lyrical central movement surrounded by two fast ones. As such it comes across as less overtly pictorial in its depiction of sunrise than, say, the horn-suffused depictions by Nielsen in Helios or Wagner in Götterdämmerung. Yet the movements have distinct moods, the first quick-witted and chirpy – as much a horn chorus as a dawn chorus when the soloist interacts with his orchestral counterparts; keening melodies intertwine in the melancholy, almost Bluesy slow movement; and we seem wide awake by the jazzy, syncopated rhythms of the finale, the one place where the full orchestra comes together. Turnage’s horn writing exploits the full range of the instrument, and Watkins played it as if he had always had it in his repertoire, such was the ease and sense of authority with which he negotiated its musical twists and turns. It’s not a long piece – roughly 20 minutes – and Turnage’s material is appropriately concise and distinctive, making its mark even on first hearing.

The concerto is the latest in a distinguished line of solo British works for the instrument extending from Britten and Tippett (his Sonata for Four Horns) and Turnage’s own teacher, Knussen, whose Horn Concerto was written for Barry Tuckwell, the news of whose death on the same day as this concert broke later the same night. Tuckwell (an LSO rather than a Philharmonia alumnus) was a famous exponent of Britten’s Serenade, written for Dennis Brain himself, and the tradition was held high in this performance in which Watkins was joined by tenor Allan Clayton. Indeed, this was one of the most affecting accounts of the cycle I have heard. The interplay between Clayton, Watkins and the Philharmonia strings under Salonen’s sympathetic direction was ideal, with the tenor’s projection of text particularly telling and his musical line pointed but expressive. The ominous march of the Dirge built up a furious head of steam, while at the opposite extreme Keats’ Sonnet was exquisitely moving, with Clayton floating his line above the somnolent harmonies of the strings, which look forward in their fragility to the world of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Watkins’ role was every bit the equal of Clayton’s – perfectly played from memory and showing no indication that he had already premiered a whole concerto before the interval.

The Philharmonia’s own present-day horn section, led by Diego Incertis Sánchez, was given its own chance to shine in the two works that framed the programme, Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, both of which feature prominent roles for the instrument. From a tentative start to its rousing conclusion, the Weber managed to convey the drama of the whole opera in its ten minutes, and the Strauss was superlatively played by the whole orchestra, with Salonen coaxing all the wit from the music – a blazing, exhilarating romp to conclude this absorbing tour round the horn.