French-born French Horn player, Nicolas Fleury has been an Australian resident since 2019 following a decade as a soloist and Principal with orchestras across the world. Now Principal French Horn with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, he’s teaming up with violinist Emily Sun and pianist Amir Farid to tour Australia for Musica Viva. The program includes Brahms’ Horn Trio, written in 1865 in memory of his mother, alongside a 1910 arrangement by the composer Ernst Naumann of Mozart’s Horn Quintet for the same line-up. In addition, Sun and Farid will premiere a brand-new sonata by Gordon Kerry, a work commissioned by Julian Burnside in celebration of the composer’s 60th birthday. Limelight caught up with Nicolas Fleury to talk about his lifelong love affair with this demanding instrument, all things horn, and the music he – and you – should never be without.

Nicolas Fleury. Photograph supplied

What led you to choose the French Horn as your instrument?

I was very fortunate to have a go at pretty much all the instruments when I was seven as part of my school activities (my school was basically next door to the local conservatorium). Quite frankly, I fell in love with the instrument straight away. After a quick demonstration, the teacher (who went on to become my teacher for the next 12 years) made me try his gorgeous shiny instrument and I made a sound on it straight away without much difficulty – that’s rare on an instrument which is notoriously hard to play. There was no doubt in a mind that I was going to be a horn player.

It’s a relative rarity to see the horn at the heart of a live chamber music concert. Why do you think that is? Lack of repertoire? Crowded out by starrier instruments? Conservative programming?

It could be lots of reasons. The chamber repertoire for the instrument is big, but of course not as big as the string quartet repertoire. The beauty of our repertoire is that we mix so well with all kinds of instruments. From Malcolm Arnold’s Brass Quintet, to Ligeti’s Wind Quintet, to Mozart and Beethoven’s Wind Octet, to the Beethoven Septet or Schubert’s Octet. The list continues… All those pieces have one thing in common and that is the central role of the horn. Those pieces aren’t programmed enough – most of the time they involve more than three players, which can be a very expensive group to tour.

How did this program come about? And do you know your fellow musicians well?

I was approached by Musica Viva to tackle this tour, which is a huge challenge for a horn player to perform those two major works in one show (that was during the COVID lockdown in 2020). Musica Viva Australia Artistic Director Paul Kildea and I had big chats about who we would like to play violin and piano. The way we decided was by listening to wonderful recordings of Emily Sun (violin) and Amir Farid (piano). I was touched by their musical identity and could straight away see myself shaping Brahms and Mozart with a similar approach. And so did Paul!

Nicolas Fleury performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Why do you think Ernst Naumann arranged Mozart’s Horn Quintet for piano, violin and horn?  And does the piano basically replace the two original two violas and cello or is it more subtle?

Ernst Naumann was very close to Brahms, and my opinion is that he loved the Brahms Horn Trio. He was also a brilliant arranger of works by Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn. I believe that for Ernst, the perfect chamber music concert involving the horn would be pairing his arrangement of Mozart’s Horn Quintet and the Brahms Horn Trio… and that is exactly what we will be doing.

The piano fits perfectly in this arrangement. Mozart wrote this quintet for horn, one violin, two violas and cello. The piece is pretty much a dialogue between a solo violin who answers the solo horn, and the other three are in charge of the magical harmony – a job the piano does beautifully in this arrangement.

Brahms’ Horn Trio was written as a memorial following his mother’s death in 1865. Why do you think he chose the horn for this, and how does the element of mourning work within the piece?

Brahms use to play the horn (the valve horn) but was always more interested in the out-of-fashion horn at the time: the natural horn. I think he chose that combination because it reminded him of the early years doing music with his mother.

The feeling of nature is very strong throughout the trio. The real mourning movement is the third, a deep, beautiful slow movement (Adagio mesto); it makes use of a German funeral melody called Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten (If thou but suffer God to guide thee). The fourth movement, Allegro con brio, represents the life that always carries on after mourning the loss of a close one.

Brahms chose the natural horn – as in the Mozart – rather than the more newly available valve horn. Why was that, and do you play it on natural horn? (And if so, what are the challenges here over valve horn)?

It is important to remember that the valve horn at the time was no way near as good as the one we use nowadays. Mozart only knew of the natural horn of course, but in Brahms case, he made a point to write for the natural horn. He believed that the modern horn wasn’t helping with the full, deep, dark sound that he was looking for in this piece.

I will be performing both pieces on the modern instrument. The key to an accurate interpretation is to always remember what the composer intended. So, despite using my modern instrument, I will use my left hand (the valves system) far less than I usually would in music like Mahler or Debussy for example.

If you could choose three chamber works for horn that you think everyone should know (apart from the above) what would you choose? 

Without a doubt the Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds. Mozart wrote to his father that “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life.”

Then Schubert’s Octet for two violins, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn – a masterpiece for a slightly bigger chamber music group.

And I would add the incredible Ernö von Dohnányi Sextet Op. 37 for violin, viola, cello, piano, clarinet and horn in C. Unbelievable music that goes straight to my heart.

Which composer would you most like to have written a work featuring a solo horn who didn’t?

Mahler! How about a Mahler horn concerto? Many horn players agree. His writing for all horn parts in his symphonies are just extraordinary. Challenging, always, but never impossible.

Who would you most like to write you a horn concerto right now?

Jacob Collier! He is a singer, artist, and composer that I would love to work with one day. Maybe not in a horn concerto as such, but perhaps in a cycle of songs where the horn would feature. I hope that he will read this!

Which great player is your all-time French Horn “god”?

Radovan Vlatković. He is and will always be THE sound of the horn for me.

Finally, which horn-featuring recording would you recommend that everyone needs to own?

You won’t be surprised by my answer here, but the Strauss Horn Concerti by Radovan Vlatković and the English Chamber Orchestra (with Jeffrey Tate conducting) is out of this world. It’s a recording that I’ve listened to since I was eight years old, and it will stay for me the benchmark.

Nicolas Fleury, Emily Sun and Amir Farid are touring Australia with Musica Viva, 9 – 26 June with a livestream on 21 June

Check details here

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