By Stephen Cera
I was saddened today to learn of the death of Barry Tuckwell in his native Australia, at the age of 88. He was the preeminent French horn player since the death of Dennis Brain in 1957.
Tuckwell came to the UK from his native Australia in 1951, age 19, and four years later was named principal horn of the London Symphony Orchestra during some of its glory days. While with the LSO, he performed with many of the greatest conductors of his era, such as Monteux and Solti. He served in that position for 13 years before leaving to pursue an international career as a soloist and chamber musician. As the most-recorded horn player in history, he can be heard on a number of benchmark discs, including Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with the composer conducting and tenor Peter Pears.
I bought my first Tuckwell recording as a teenager, a wonderful LP containing the Brahms Horn Trio performed by Tuckwell, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Later, I had the good fortune to hear Tuckwell play “live” a few times, and was privileged to attend his Decca recording sessions with Ashkenazy in London’s Kingsway Hall, when they taped Beethoven’s Horn Sonata and a Sonata by Franz Danzi (still available).
The last time our paths crossed was in December 1994, when Tuckwell performed the Brahms Horn Trio with pianist Joseph Kalichstein and violinist Jaime Laredo on our concert series at the Ford Centre in Toronto.
His repertoire was all-encompassing and included a lot of contemporary music written for him by Thea Musgrave, Gunther Schuller, Richard Rodney Bennett, Oliver Knussen and others.
In 2005, after he had retired, Gramophone magazine asked seven leading horn players which colleague they most admired. One of them, Anthony Halstead, replied, “Undoubtedly Barry Tuckwell. Throughout his long and distinguished career his awe-inspiring instrumental virtuosity was always used at the service of the music and never for shallow, egocentric display. For sheer, heroic nobility of tone, he was unequaled….Tuckwell’s metamorphosis into a full-time soloist seemed to bring about an extra humanity and warmth in his playing. This, combined with a fastidious, disciplined and fearless method of resolving every technical challenge, puts him at the very pinnacle of horn playing achievement.”
Barry Tuckwell used to say “the horn is perhaps the least efficient instrument of the brass family, but it produces the most beautiful sound of all.” And in his hands, it always did.