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
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.
a good soloist, like a fine jewel, needs a proper setting -
in this instance, a more assertive accompaniment than Jia Lü 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.
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.
the more substantial Fourth Concerto, with its active solo-and-orchestra
interplay, draws the best from the performers. After the bland
opening phrases, Lü 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.
sound is alright although headphone listening turns up several
poorly disguised splices, some within the orchestral ritornellos.
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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