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Strauss and the sweet, curly-wurly sound of the french horn

As the festive season entered its last lap, I dug out the new diary and filled in the concerts for January coverage.

When I reached Thursday 31, I experienced a triple thrill, eagerly penning in the one-night apppearance at the Usher Hall of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

The first part of the thrill is the orchestra. Though they are long-respected, I have a funny notion that the Bergen Phil is raising its game and edging up the league. You couldn't help but notice it in their recent releases for Chandos: conductor Juanjo Mena's new recording of Messiaen's colossal Turangalila Symphonie and Neeme Jarvi's fabulous new recording of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. And the fact the Tchaikovsky is the first in a set of the three big ballets, all to be produced with the same forces, will do the reputation of the Bergen Phil no harm whatsoever.

The second part of the thrill, briefly and to the point, is that for their single appearance in the capital, the orchestra is conducted by Andrew Litton, who usually gives good value for money.

But the main thrill of the night lies in the climactic presence in the repertoire of Richard Strauss's huge symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben, A Hero's Life, in which the hero is, of course, Strauss himself, in what some regard as one of the most gigantic and bombastic pices of musical narcissism in the sorry history of Romantic music.

I will accept none of that. I love the piece, from its striding, opening theme – one of the longest in 19th-century music (try singing it) – to its multiple spine-tingling climaxes. And of these none is greater, more overwhelming, than that when the massive opening theme is about to return and the way is paved by a huge climax with the French horns soaring to a giddy height.

And it is the french horns, especially in the hands of master orchestrator Richard Strauss, that define, at least for this swooning devotee, the quintessence of high Romanticism. Nobody did it better than Strauss. I mustn't forget that Brahms, not particularly one for wearing his bleeding heart on his sleeve, had his own golden horn moment in the slow movement of his First Symphony, where he gives the first horn a tender, glowing theme and then, on the return of that theme, implies his awareness of the horn's erotic allure by allowing its tune to entwine lovingly in a coupling with the first violin, while the orchestra pulses steadily in the background.

But Strauss is the man for the french horn. Who can imagine what the Four Last Songs – Strauss's poignant, valedictory look back over life, tacitly acknowledging that this is the end of it – would be like if not bathed in that warm glow of horn sound? Who can imagine the electrifying thrill of Don Juan without its amazing, octave-leaping horn theme (which you will hear quoted late-on in Heldenleben)?

Yet, for all its beauty of sound, the curly-wurly french horn is an oddity of an instrument. It's the only one I can think of that plays backwards, with its sound coming at you from the back wall behind the orchestra. Further, you hold it in one hand and shove the other hand up its backside, waggling that hand about to find appropriate sounds and shades of colouring.

If you could blow hard enough to uncurl it, you would be confronted with a brass tube of around either eight or 12 feet long, depending on the key of the instrument: ergo the curls. Horns hunt in packs, usually of two, four or eight. And they bring their own reinforcement, threateningly called a bumper. "Never go behind the horns or your illusions will be shattered," warned a horn-playing chum while we were on tour. That was a red rag to a bull, and I was utterly horrified at the near-bestial sound that assaulted my ears. Still I love the instrument, and am already rehearsing my swoon for Heldenleben on January 31. See you there.

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