New Classical Tracks: The Richness of Brahms, the Joy of Mozart

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
October 12, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — For the past ten years, Jeff Nelsen has played French horn with the Canadian Brass. He played his last official gig with that ensemble in August, before taking on his new role as dad. Jeff Nelsen and his wife Nina welcomed their baby boy Rhys Oliver into the world on September 29th. Rhys will be surrounded by music, just as Jeff was, growing up with opera-singing, pig-farming parents. "My dad grew up on a farm about ten miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada," he says. "My mom grew up in Toronto--she was singing there. Dad left the farm to go study singing in Toronto and that's where they met, and they began touring. Then they went back to the farm to have my two older sisters and me but kept singing throughout."

Jeff Nelsen has had a diverse musical career, partially because of his chosen instrument. "Lucky for me I picked the French horn," he explains, "We get to do the movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and Bolton and Manilow had French horn in their shows. I was extra keen and I knew the right people, so I got to go out on those tours. It's been fantastic, and great for my playing too. I think that diversity goes into my Brahms." So every once in a while you may hear Nelsen add a little bit of Hollywood to his new recording, featuring music of Brahms and Mozart.

Brahms composed his horn trio shortly after his mother died. A quiet walk in the woods brought the beautiful melody to light. This dramatic trio is highlighted by Jeff Nelsen's gorgeous tone, which he says comes from the vocal approach he takes to his instrument. "I am quite literally singing into my instrument when I play," Nelsen says, "so if I want to get louder I bring my voice forward." When he's teaching at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, Nelsen uses this same approach.

On this disc, Nelsen joins up with his colleague at IU, violinist Ik-Hwan Bae, and a wonderful new pianist he says we'll be hearing a lot more of, Naomi Kudo.

There are interesting conversations between all three in the Brahms Trio. Creating a balanced blend between these voices is what's most challenging in a chamber setting. On this recording, Nelsen and his colleagues master that challenge in the pastoral first movement. The horn and violin take turns playing center stage as the piano provides a much-needed support role. Their dramatic interplay enhances the massive emotional impact of this movement.

One of Nelsen's favorite moments in the Brahms occurs in the beautiful adagio. "I love the beginning of the slow movement," Nelsen explains. "It has such beautiful nuance and it's a long idea that has mild pauses along the way, and I love the way it comes out on the recording."

The new release also features the world premiere of an adaptation of Mozart's Horn Quintet for trio. "I'm very excited about that," Nelsen enthuses. "My friend Tony Rickard arranged it from its original form. Mozart wrote it for horn and a string quartet that was unique, with one violin, two violas and cello. I really love this piece. We changed some instrumentation. We kept the violin part relatively the same, then the two violas and cello are in the piano part, and it works beautifully."

When Nelsen recorded the Rondo from this piece in 2004, he wrote a cadenza for it. He decided to write another cadenza for this new recording. He started the same way, and then took a few twists and turns. "But then at the last minute where it sounds like it's going to go to the same place, I got into a quote from 'Alpine Symphony,' from Richard Strauss, except I play it in the style of Mozart. And then I go into an original melody that goes into a nice soft landing, and then I quote the slow movement of the Mozart piece itself. Then I got into some 'Magic Flute'--the overture. And that goes into some crazy lip trills and technical fireworks. But instead of ending there, I do a little chromatic thing into the 'Queen of the Night' aria. So the extremities of the horn range go five octaves worth of notes and then go into the piece."

Don't try this at home.

This new recording, which launches the "Soloists of the Canadian Brass" series on Opening Day Recordings, is delightful. One moment you'll find yourself awash in the dramatic richness of Brahms, the next you'll be lost in the joy of Mozart thanks to the talents of Jeff Nelsen, Ik-Hwan Bae and Naomi Kudo.

To hear Julie Amacher's full extended interview with Jeff Nelsen, click on the link in the "Audio" sidebar to the upper-right.

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