Mozart: Horn Concertos (CD review)

Also, Rondo in E flat. Ab Koster, horn; Bruno Weil, Tafelmusik. Newton Classics 8802160.

Mozart’s four horn concertos are among his most famous, most recognizable pieces of music; accordingly, we find any number of fine recordings of them in the catalogue. In 1993 Sony Classics originally released the ones we get on this Newton Classics 2012 reissue with Ab Koster on horn, supported by the period-instruments band Tafelmusik lead by Maestro Bruno Weil. Period or modern, Koster and Tafelmusik do up the music as well as anybody, so it’s good to have them back at hand.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, as I’m sure you know, is a Canadian-based period-instruments ensemble founded in 1979 and specializing in early music. Jeanne Lamon has been the group’s primary conductor since 1981, and Bruno Weil, featured here, is their principal guest conductor. Soloist Ab Koster has been performing for even longer than Tafelmusik have existed, so he knows his way around a horn. Here, he plays the natural horn, on which he has also performed with such notables as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Br├╝ggen. The historical natural horn that Koster uses for the recording dates from the early nineteenth century, built by Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, and it must be a bear to control. The natural horn did not yet have the valves of a modern horn, the instrument’s range manipulated by various detachable tube lengths (called “crooks”) and by hand-stopping (the player’s hand working inside the bell of the horn).

Anyway, things begin with the little Rondo in E flat, K371, which, like Mozart’s other works for horn, the composer tailored for playing by his longtime friend, the horn virtuoso Joseph Leutgeb. The Rondo is the only movement of a horn concerto Mozart never completed, and even this Rondo he left unfinished. Scholar Robert Levin completed the version we hear on the disc. (Levin also reconstructed the Rondo for K412 later in the program.)

Maestro Weil’s conducting and the orchestral playing throughout the album are vivid, vivacious, and accomplished. The melodies flow easily, with quick yet relaxed tempos. The horn sound is wonderfully plush, mellow, well rounded, and mellifluent, Koster able to coax any number of remarkable effects from the instrument. And Koster’s own cadenza’s sound quite imaginative.

I enjoyed the performances of Koster and company immensely, and I have no reservation in encouraging anyone who enjoys the Horn Concertos as well as the sound and style of period instruments and period practices to sample them. However, I continue to prefer by a slim margin the Harmonia Mundi period-instruments recording with Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and soloist Lowell Greer. The PBO interpretation is every bit as lively and informed as Tafelmusik’s, and it has the advantage of an even more-natural orchestral setting. Then, too, while the Newton Classics/Sony recording can sometimes sound a tad more transparent than the HM one, it is also a touch brighter, so the sonic qualities pretty much even out.

If I had to fault the album at all, it’s that it doesn’t contain very much music at just barely over an hour. The Horn Concertos themselves are rather brief affairs, and the added Rondo in E flat is only five minutes long. Nevertheless, Newton Classics are only giving us what Sony originally provided, so we can’t blame them for short measure. Besides, it’s the quality of the music that counts, not its length, and Koster and Tafelmusik provide a high measure of performance and sound values.

Another minor snag relates to the packaging. It seems that whoever numbered the tracks on the back of the jewel case didn’t bother listening to the disc. The back lists fifteen tracks, but the disc contains only twelve. It took me a moment or two to recognize the mistake; the case lists the three cadenzas Koster devised as separate tracks, while the actual disc incorporates them into the regular tracks. So if you want to avoid confusion (if Newton doesn’t reprint their listing by the time you read this), you might want to renumber the tracks yourself.

Sony recorded Horn Concertos 2, 3, and 4 at Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands in 1992 and the Rondo and Concerto No. 1 at Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada in 1993, Newton Classics releasing them in 2012. The sound in Nos. 2, 3, and 4 is quite good, the horn well integrated into the orchestral accompaniment. The midrange appears reasonably well detailed, and the depth of image is fairly realistic, with the Netherlands venue providing a warm, ambient glow to surround the instruments. The Toronto studio, though, seems to produce a somewhat brighter, harder sound, with the horn at times sounding a bit too big or too close.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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