Who can resist the verve of Mozart's four horn concertos? And how many old English teachers can overlook the name Pip? Thus, it was with great expectations that I approached this Mozart recording with Pip Eastop on natural horn and Anthony Halstead leading the period-instrument Hanover Band.
A little background: Pip Eastop studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1974 to 1976, subsequently becoming Principal Horn with the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Wallace Collection, and the Gabrieli Consort; since 2005 he has been the Principal Horn with the London Chamber Orchestra. In addition, he has served as a professor of horn at the Royal Academy of Music since 1993 and at the Royal College of Music since 1995. He is no stranger to the instrument.
Anthony Halstead was first horn with the English Chamber Orchestra from 1972 to 1986 as well as with other noted orchestras such as the London Symphony and served as a professor at the Guildhall School of Music. During the 1980s and 90s, Halstead was a member of the horn section and a horn soloist with several period-instrument groups, including the English Concert, notably recording the Mozart horn concertos for Nimbus Records with Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band. For the past two decades or so he has lead the English Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Hanover Band, and other esteemed ensembles. He is no stranger to period and modern orchestras.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed his four horn concertos between 1783 and 1791, never finishing the final one (numbered first), the second movement reconstructed here by Stephen Roberts. Mozart wrote the concertos for his lifelong friend, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, as virtuoso showpieces for soloists to display their skills on the valveless horns of the day.
The Hyperion producers have organized the concertos on this disc according to their order of composition, starting with No. 2, which Mozart wrote first (1783). This opening concerto well exemplifies the work of the soloist and orchestra. The performers follow modestly vigorous tempos throughout, with little undue rushing about. The phrasing is likewise excellent, almost always at the service of the music. Maestro Halstead and Mr. Eastop partially reconstructed the opening Allegro, which sounds to me a little too weighty in tone but I suppose works to the advantage of the score in any case.
Next we hear Concerto No. 4 from 1786, always a delightful piece, which Eastop and company carry off successfully, especially in the flow of the Romance. The closing Allegro is lively, but some listeners might find it a tad too quick for their liking. To me, it sounded just right and invigorated the proceedings.
And so it goes through Nos. 3 and the unfinished No. 1, with playing of utmost refinement and spontaneity from Eastop and the Hanover Band. The opening of No. 1 appears particularly smooth and lyrical.
The program ends with Mozart's Horn Quintet in E flat major, K407, from 1782, Mr. Eastop accompanied by the estimable Eroica Quartet. It was the first work the composer wrote for his friend Leutgeb. In the arrangement, Mozart used two violas, which lends the piece a deeper, more mellow sound to complement the horn. Interestingly, the music seems to put more of a virtuosic demand on the horn player than the concertos, and Eastop comes through splendidly, every note the epitome of grace, color, and beauty.
Producer and engineer Adrian Hunter recorded the concertos at All Saint's Church, East Finchley, London in October 2013 and the quintet at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex in February 2011. The sound in the concertos appears quite realistic, the orchestra miked at a moderate distance, just enough to provide some breadth and depth to the ensemble and plenty of air and space around it. The horn sounds rich and mellifluous and well integrated into the orchestral setting, up front but not in your face. Detailing on the instruments is good in a lifelike sense, meaning it's warm and smooth, with no edge, no forwardness, no brightness. What's more, there is a strong dynamic impact and a wide frequency range to enhance the naturalness of the presentation. In short, this album is sonically among the best recordings of Mozart's horn concertos available. The quintet isn't bad, either, if a little more closely miked.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: