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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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