Barry Tuckwell obituary | Barry Millington

Horn player who left the London Symphony Orchestra to become a leading soloist with a prolific recording career

Widely acclaimed as the finest horn player of his generation, Barry Tuckwell, who has died aged 88, brought to an often recalcitrant instrument a technical security and silken tone that set new standards. With his trademark moustache and goatee, he cut a genial, distinctive figure on the stage, mesmerising audiences with the style and quality of his playing.

A native of Australia, he left the southern hemisphere in 1950, taking various positions in Britain before joining the London Symphony Orchestra as principal horn in 1955, remaining with them until 1968, and acting for a number of years also as its director and then chairman. It was a time of some turmoil at the LSO: several principals had recently left in pursuit of more lucrative commercial work and Tuckwell was one of a cadre of talented musicians – the violinists Hugh Maguire and Neville Marriner, clarinettist Gervase de Peyer, bassoonist William Waterhouse and trombonist Denis Wick among them – whose recruitment brought new levels of excellence, restoring the orchestra’s reputation in the process.

With its newly engaged general secretary, Ernest Fleischmann, the ensemble’s first professional manager, Tuckwell established the LSO Trust, which helped to finance tours as well as providing sickness and holiday pay for the players. Together they initiated the process of the LSO becoming resident at the Barbican, finally achieved in 1982. However, Tuckwell resigned from the board, objecting to what he regarded as Fleischmann’s high-handedness. Fleischmann, who had a reputation as a ruthless operator, was forced to resign, but Tuckwell took the opportunity to leave the LSO to pursue a solo career. He also, in 1968, formed the Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet, in order to play more music for small ensemble.

By this stage he was already well known as a player of outstanding ability and was highly sought after by concert programmers and composers alike. The horn parts of the baroque and classical repertory may betray their origins in the instrument’s original functions in hunting and signalling, but with his peerless dexterity and control of phrasing and dynamics Tuckwell transformed those functional calls into golden phrases, achieving a level of expertise matched in his era only by Dennis Brain, a player 10 years his senior. On Brain’s untimely death in a car accident in 1957 Tuckwell inherited his mantle as the instrument’s leading executant.

His broad Aussie humour and love of life patently informed his musical style, which was as infectious and exuberant as it was technically dazzling. A certain maverick quality was also evident in his choice of instrument – not by one of the more prestigious manufacturers but a large-bored modern Holton double horn. The “Holton Tuckwell model”, as it became known, made it easier to switch between soloistic, chamber and symphonic repertory. The model also had a specially tempered red brass bell that produced a tone quality of exceptional richness and colour.

Barry Tuckwell playing the finale of Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No 1 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Japan

Born in Melbourne to Charles Tuckwell, an organist, and Elizabeth (nee Norton), a pianist, Barry became a chorister at St Andrew’s Cathedral school. His older sister, Patricia, a violinist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, encouraged him to take up the horn, on which he made rapid progress, taking inspiration from the suave phrasing of the jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey. He began his career at 15 with the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras.

After moving to Britain, he played briefly with the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli in Manchester and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves, before joining the LSO. Alongside the latter post he carved out a solo career, working, for example, with Benjamin Britten. He recorded the latter’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings, alongside De Peyer, Waterhouse and others, under the composer in 1959. Four years later he went on to record the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, alongside Peter Pears and again under the composer, negotiating the work’s fiendish technical difficulties with aplomb. By an unfortunate coincidence, it was precisely at this time that Britten’s friendship with the Earl of Harewood (president of the Aldeburgh festival, and later managing director of English National Opera) cooled when his marriage imploded after he fell in love with Tuckwell’s sister, Patricia, who subsequently became Countess of Harewood.

The Horn Concerto written for him by Thea Musgrave stationed three orchestral horns round the perimeter of the Royal Albert Hall, where it was performed in 1971 at the BBC Proms, the solo part being subjected to ironic commentary. Objections to the controversial nature of the work were wittily reflected in Tuckwell’s comment: “There’s a horn player at every exit so no one can leave!” Other composers who wrote concertos for him included Robin Holloway, Gunther Schuller, Don Banks, Iain Hamilton and Oliver Knussen.

He recorded prolifically, with more than 50 solo discs to his credit, including four versions of the Mozart horn concertos, the full solo repertory from Telemann to Richard Strauss and on to contemporary works. He also became known as a conductor, with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (1980-83) and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1982, settling in Hagerstown, Maryland, 75 miles north-west of Baltimore.

He was first president of the International Horn Society (1970-76, and again 1992-94). He established the society’s Barry Tuckwell scholarship in 1997 to facilitate education and performance opportunities for talented horn students. Having retired from horn playing in early 1997, he returned to Australia, taking a teaching appointment at the University of Melbourne. His practical guides included Playing the Horn and the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guide to the instrument.

He was made an OBE in 1965 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1992.

He was married four times: to Sally Newton, a doctor, with whom he had a son, David, and a daughter, Jane; to Hilary Warburton, a divorce lawyer, with whom he had a son, Tom; to Susan Levitan, a sometime sports reporter with the Baltimore Sun; and last October to Jenny Darling, a literary agent and his partner for the last 14 years, who survives him, along with his three children.

• Barry Emmanuel Tuckwell, horn player and conductor, born 5 March 1931; died 16 January 2020

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Barry Millington

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