Does anyone know why British horn players have cornered the market in recordings of the Mozart concertos? I know of seven who have recorded the four concertos—Dennis Brain, Timothy Brown, Jeffrey Bryant, Alan Civil, Frank Lloyd, David Pyatt, and Barry Tuckwell, and that’s not counting those who have done the same using the so-called 'natural' (valveless) horn—Anthony Halstead (twice), Roger Montgomery, and now Pip Eastop. There may well be a few more I have overlooked.
The natural horn was a unique creature. Its pure, open tones were limited to those of the over-tone series of the key in which it was pitched by the use of crooks (additional lengths of tubing), but unlike the trumpet (also valveless until the mid-19th century), the player could “stop” the open notes by partially or completely choking the air stream with his right hand, which rested in the bell of the instrument, thus making available a much greater number of notes. The price paid for this manipulation was a highly uneven tone quality, ranging from pure, beautiful open tones to buzzy, almost unmusical sounds, and a gray area in between. In the context of the time, one gasps in astonishment at the agility of the virtuoso for whom Mozart wrote these concertos (Joseph Leutgeb), but to modern ears, the effect is something of a freak show. The invention of valves in the early 19th century effectively ended the need to 'stop' notes.
That said, Pip Eastop’s performances are probably the best to date played on the natural horn. Anthony Halstead’s two accounts are the runners up. Here Halstead takes up the baton to lead his colleague in these performances. Eastop knocks off the concertos with all the flair, self-confidence, and sensitivity one expects from a soloist. But what sets Eastop in a class by himself is the sheer musicality of his playing. In this he surpasses most of the competition on the valve horn as well. There are moments of rhythmic insecurity, and there is no denying that some passages sound labored, but that is the nature of the natural horn, no matter how accomplished the player. Eastop is certain to se-duce the listener with his gorgeous tone (at least on the open notes), and some of those cadenzas he dreamed up will knock your socks off. (One covers an amazing four octaves plus!)
Eastop’s vivid playing is complemented by the tasteful, stylish contribution from The Hanover Band and from the Eroica Quartet, which joins Eastop for Mozart’s Horn Quintet. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only CD to include this essential work of the horn repertory with the four concertos.