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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Horn Concerto No. 1 in D, K. 412 (1791?) [8.14]
Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat, K. 417 (1783) [12.45]
Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat, K. 447 (1786-7) [14.30]
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat, K. 495 (1786) [16.35]
Concert Rondo in E-flat, K. 371 (1781?) [6.25]
Fragment in E, K. 494a [2:56]
Michael FLANDERS and Donald SWANN

Ill Wind (based on K. 495, transcribed for orchestra)*
Eric Ruske (horn)
Richard Suart (soloist)*
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4-5 December 2004
TELARC CD-80367 [64.26]

This album would raise anew the vexing question of repertoire reduplication, were it not so good as immediately to dispel all such concerns.

First of all, the hornist, Eric Ruske, like any other fine instrumentalist, produces a distinctive timbre. We may not hear hornists frequently enough to pick up on their easily distinguishable "sounds" as we can with pianists and violinists; even so, every player's sound is different. Most players seem to favor either a tone quality that is round and occasionally diffuse, or a secure one with an insistent, steely focus. This hornist gives us both, sheathing a clear, laser-like brightness in velvet - after the performance. This quality lingers in the ear and the mind ... for the right reasons.

Ruske's command of the instrument is, of course, a factor in producing that distinctive tone quality. K. 447 offers such breathtaking details as the immaculate trills in K.447 (track 6, 5.03 and 5.18), and the precision landing in the cadenza's upward arpeggios - he plays all his own cadenzas, by the way. These details and the assured placement of notes in wide leaps bespeak real virtuoso capacities. But that technique isn't all just for show. It also allows Ruske the control to shape cantabile lines via subtle gradations of dynamics, without sacrificing the clarity and focus provided by his consistently semi-detached articulations; meanwhile, his bracing 6/8 finales go with rollicking good humor. In short, this is sterling playing: Ruske gives the eminent Barry Tuckwell (EMI) a run for his money, and completely outclasses such formidable competitors as Alan Civil (for a number of labels), Michael Thompson (Tring), and Mason Jones (Sony).

Sir Charles Mackerras draws stylish and knowing orchestral support from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The winds shine clearly through the lightweight sonority, while the violins' long-limbed melodic phrasing "over the barlines" makes for a fresh, youthful effect. Overall, I'd say the orchestra rather outpoints the Prague Chamber Orchestra, with which Sir Charles recorded the Mozart symphonies.

Flanders and Swann's Ill Wind, adapted from K. 495's finale, is comic patter on a par with the Campbell's Soup song, the Periodic Table, Barbra Streisand's Minute Waltz, and other such delights. Richard Suart's deft, precise delivery brings out its droll humour, and the orchestra plays as tidily for him as it does for Ruske in the real thing.

The engineers have placed the horn front and center, and it reproduces with impressive bronzen depth within a vibrant ambience. The forward perspective does throw off the balance momentarily at 1.55 of track 6, where the violins' soft answering phrase doesn't immediately register. The box and booklet, oddly, don't "number" the concerti, offering only the Köchel numbers, though this is of course sufficient to identify them.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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