Anthony Halstead has made two stylish recordings of the Mozart Horn Concertos as soloist, with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood (Decca Rosette Collection 4767088, mid-price) and with the Hanover Band and Roy Goodman (Nimbus NI5104). Now he steps back from the solo spot to direct these performances. The Nimbus recording offers the fragment K494a but the new Hyperion includes a more substantial bonus in the form of the Horn Quintet, K407.
There are already enough recordings of these concertos to sink the proverbial ship—over fifty at the current count—but even if you have the classic Dennis Brain recordings with Herbert von Karajan (Warner/EMI Masters 6783282, mid-price, with Quintet for Piano and Wind), as surely almost all Mozarteans do, there's a place for an alternative set on the natural horn and with the advantage of modern recording.
Mozart deliberately made these concertos difficult to play on the natural horn and even included rude remarks in the score about how hard it would be for their dedicatee, Ignaz Leutgeb or Leitgeb, to negotiate them. Despite the references to him as an ‘ass, ox and simpleton’ Leutgeb seems to have been a first-class performer. If, as has been suggested, the joke direction to the soloist at one point to play adagio against the orchestra’s allegro refers to his tendency to enter slightly behind the accompaniment it didn’t prevent him from being in great demand. Nor was he ever, as popular legend has it, a cheese-monger.
Whatever the truth of that suggestion, Pip Eastop never drags any of his entries, though some of the tempi which he and Anthony Halstead adopt are a little more measured than you may be used to. If you have in the back of your mind Flanders and Swann’s rendition of the French Horn song, the finale of K495 (track 6) you'll find the pace noticeably a little less hectic than theirs, supposedly modelled on the Brain/Karajan recording.
What you will find, however, is that Eastop and Halstead make it sound just as much fun, not least in the cadenza, and that’s true of the whole recording. Though this is, as far as I’m aware, Eastop's first recording, it’s hardly surprising that Hyperion have made this their top release for January 2015, even ahead of the fourth volume of The Cardinall’s Musick’s recordings of Tallis, excellent as that is.
The blurb describes the programme of this CD as containing all the music that Mozart wrote with Leutgeb in mind. In the case of the Horn Quintet, K407, that’s probable rather than certain according to Grove but I’m pleased that it was included. The most recent alternative recording featuring the natural horn and period instruments received a warm welcome from Colin Clarke: Simon Thompson was slightly less enthusiastic but most will think K407 preferable to the various fragments included on that live Signum recording from Roger Montgomery and the OAE directed by Margaret Faultless. If the Signum takes your fancy, however, that's also available for downloading in mp3, 16- or 24-bit lossless sound from Hyperion.
Süssmayr’s completion of K412 is rejected on the reasonable grounds that he did not have access to the autograph score. A new and credible completion by Anthony Halstead takes its place. The process is explained in the booklet which is, as usual with Hyperion, a model of its kind, including the refutation of the usual myth that Leutgeb was a cheese-monger. That’s another musical anecdote refuted along with the story about the rats putting the organ out of action and necessitating the guitar accompaniment for Stille Nacht.
I listened to this recording as a 24-bit download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk, in which form it sounds very well indeed. I also sampled the mp3 and that, too, is very good of its kind, so the 16-bit CD which falls between the two should also sound very well.
Dennis Brain’s recording will always form part of my Mozart listening schedule and I shan’t throw out the super-budget-price Warner Apex with David Pyatt, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner, which I thought the equal of anything available (2564681619) but I very much enjoyed this new recording, too. Any good performance of great music brings out aspects that one hadn’t heard before; this recording made me hear more new aspects of the concertos and especially of the quintet than any other. It’s emphatically not just for the period-instrument brigade.