Brass buffs will be aware of conductor Anthony Halstead's reputation as a natural horn specialist. He's recorded the Mozart concertos twice, and his Nimbus disc of Weber's impossible Concertino is one of the greatest horn discs ever made. So this Hyperion release has good credentials; Pip Eastop's versatility is a given and the period-instrument Hanover Band have been performing since 1980. As with recent recordings by Roger Montgomery  and Anneke Scott , Eastop's playing has the effect of making the modern horn sound a little, er, boring. He doesn't attempt to smooth over the differences between open and stopped notes, effortlessly switching between legato lines and rollicking hunting calls. It's an instantly appealing, very vocal sound. Eastop describes his instrument as 'rougher, wilder, more playful and idiosyncratic—more Robin Hood than James Bond'. Play Mozart on a valve horn and you miss the colour, the drama. Everyone needs a copy of Dennis Brain's silken mono recording, but these pieces do take on a different character heard on a length of unadorned brass tubing.
This is a feel-good disc in every way; Eastop's cheeky virtuosity eliciting gasps as well as giggles. The cadenzas are a case in point. They're always intensely musical and Mozartian, though it's hard to imagine Mozart's favoured hornist Ignaz Leutgeb being quite so flamboyant or hitting stratospheric high notes with such ease. The concertos are ordered in their probable date of composition—the more difficult Nos 2 and 4 actually the first to be written. Anoraks will note that the prosaic ending of K417's first movement, never completed by Mozart himself, has been tweaked by Halstead to allow space for a cadenza. No 4's ubiquitous finale is fun, and No 3 emerges as the subtlest, most mature work. Leutgeb's technique was waning by the time Mozart completed the D major concerto, and the manuscript of the Rondo is peppered with insults directed at him. He must have been made of stoic stuff; lesser mortals would storm off in a huff if they were to read comments like 'at least get one note in tune, Dickhead!'. Leutgeb's abilities must have been phenomenal if he could perform the sublime Horn Quintet. Eastop sails through its difficulties, resisting the temptation to rush through the witty finale. It sounds all the better for it. Intelligent notes, sensitive accompaniments and excellent sound—what's not to like?