In the Norris household, and doubtless in many others, Mozart’s horn concertos = Dennis Brain with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan, a 1953 EMI recording that is still in the catalogue to this very day. This new version, however, is so different that any comparisons would serve no particular purpose. Pip Eastop plays a natural horn akin to the type available to the virtuoso for whom Mozart wrote the four concertos, Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart clearly did not feel in any way hidebound by the horn’s limited range of easily attainable notes. As Eastop says in a booklet-note, ‘to play the hand horn is to wrestle with nature … [it] simply doesn’t want to cooperate with a least half of the notes Mozart threw at it’.
That said, these performances have eloquent fluency. If, as Eastop says, ‘melodies have to be physically wrenched into shape from both ends of the instrument’, the only signs of effort here are in the sudden shifts of colour on those notes that are produced by manipulating the right hand in the instrument’s bell—a process that was obviated when the horn acquired valves in the nineteenth century. Those who prefer more consistency of timbre might not be won over, though you would have to go a long way to hear such a refined legato line as Eastop achieves. With lucid input from The Hanover Band and from the Eroica Quartet in the Quintet, these performances have a musical integrity over and above historical interest.