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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Horn Concerto No.1 in D, K. 412 (1791?) [8:53]
Horn Concerto No.2 in E-flat, K. 417 (1783) [13:04]
Horn Concerto No.3 in E-flat, K. 447 (1784-7) [14:37]
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat, K. 495 (1786) [15:39]
Concert Rondo in E-flat, K. 371 (1781?; completed by Fritz Beyer) [6:07]
Xiao-Ming Han (horn)
English Chamber Orchestra/Lu Jia
rec. Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London, January 1996

The record catalogues are already replete with traversals of the Mozart concertos by great hornists of the past and present. We hardly need yet another set, especially one performed by an unfamiliar artist - who will remain so, since no biographical notes accompany this Sanctuary Records reissue. But you can hardly blame players for favoring these immediately appealing scores, and the CD-length program constitutes a handy recorded "calling card", rather as a recital of Italian arias does for an operatic soprano.
Certainly the soloist can stand the scrutiny. Xiao-Ming Han's round, handsome tone retains a clear, focused core through most of the range, with only the highest, most "open" notes in the cadenzas turning diffuse. We hear splendidly crisp articulation and rhythmic address. We also hear musical, stylish phrasing. Han sensitively colors the brief ventures into minor that momentarily darken the proceedings. If there's nothing immediately distinctive about the soloist's sound - conventional steel-sheathed-in-velvet - it's still a pleasure to hear.
But a good soloist, like a fine jewel, needs a proper setting - in this instance, a more assertive accompaniment than Lu Jia provides in the first two concerti. Granted, these pieces don't require much conductorial intervention, and one does initially enjoy the light, airy textures and the unforced ease of the music-making. But the violins don't stand out in sufficiently sharp relief against the supporting voices. The winds are clear but subdued, lacking the bite and the sheer presence we've heard elsewhere. In such a musically neutral context, small faults - the odd moments of loose chording; the occasional stiff, deliberate tempo - become more noticeable. All this takes its toll on the otherwise fastidious soloist, who by the Second Concerto's finale is rushing the little fanfare motifs.
The Third Concerto improves a bit. There's a nice rhythmic swing to the opening ritornello, and both orchestra and soloist maintain the buoyant phrasing. The string after-beats in the Romanze, which frequently sound like mere filler, here serve gently to nudge the music forward. Unfortunately, the finale could have used some of the first movement's buoyancy: the tempo as such is fine, but it lacks the needed exuberant lift.
Happily, the more substantial Fourth Concerto, with its active solo-and-orchestra interplay, draws the best from the performers. After the bland opening phrases, Lu Jia and the orchestra come to life: the violins begin projecting their themes so as to draw the ear; the woodwinds finally take their rightful places in the sonority, providing color and edge as well as harmonic support. This Romanza flows as the other slow movements didn't, and it's followed by a really rollicking Rondo. The K. 371 Concert Rondo goes equally well, with Han's tone taking on a bassoon-like pungency in the lowest range.
The sound is alright although headphone listening turns up several poorly disguised splices, some within the orchestral ritornellos.
For an off-the-rack impulse purchase, the newcomer to Mozart - or to music - could do worse than this. Veteran collectors interested in Han can decide whether the Fourth Concerto and Rondo make this worth the low price.
Stephen Francis Vasta



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