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Virtuoso Horn Duo
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)

Concerto in E flat for two horn and chamber orchestra [17:23]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

Concerto No. 11 ‘L’Estro Armonico’ for two horns and strings (transcribed from the original for two violins by Zoltan Varga) [9:22]
Antonio ROSETTI (1750-1792)

Concerto No. III (16) (D.T.B. 51) [19:52]
Kerry TURNER (b. 1960)

Twas a dark and stormy night’ (2006) [7:14]
The Virtuoso Horn Duo (Kerry Turner; Kristina Mascher)
Sinfonietta Cracovia/Dariusz Wisniewski
rec. 3-5 April 2006, Zgromadzenie Ojcow Zmartwychwstancow, Cracow, Poland
MSR CLASSICS MS 1181 [53:53]

The florid, over-the-top typography on the CD booklet is a good metaphor for the playing on this disc. The Virtuoso Horn Duo, founded in 2002, is dedicated to ‘highly melodic, sometimes traditional and often technically dazzling horn playing’ and that is certainly what you get. But is that enough?

The Duo’s co-founder, Texan Kerry Turner, has the right credentials for this repertoire. A composer, member of the American Horn Quartet and the Luxembourg Philharmonic he has played and taught around the world. His compatriot Kristina Mascher has played first horn in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under Claudio Abbado and also manages to combine playing in the Duo with teaching and other concert performances.

So, does this duo dazzle? Indeed they do, and then some. The Haydn is easily the most accomplished work on the disc, the opening Allegro maestoso blending good spirits with a more elegiac central section. The soloists – placed much too far forward – are certainly up to the technical demands of this music but the Sinfonietta Cracovia sound somewhat scrawny, especially in the upper strings, an impression reinforced by the overweening soloists.

The horns are not particularly warm toned in the Romance and the tempi seem a little sluggish too. The delightful ‘chugging’ motifs that anchor the Rondo are nicely articulated and give the music a welcome lilt but there is something rather brazen about the horn playing throughout. This is Papa Haydn in genial and inventive mood and the music could really do with some classical restraint plus a dash of warmth, wit and charm.

Part of the problem is the Duo’s emphasis on sheer virtuosity at the expense of subtlety. The horn playing at the start of the Vivaldi is a case in point. The decorative Baroque style is very much in evidence but the horns really do dominate and, in the more exposed writing, they sound rather raw. As in the Haydn the slow movement sounds much too leaden, the recessed strings struggling to make themselves heard above the rampant horns. To be fair the Vivaldi sounds rather relentless in this transcription, lacking any sense of scale and balance.

The Bohemian-born composer Anton Rössler – who changed his name to the more Italianate Antonio Rosetti – was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. He is best known for his horn concertos, which Mozart scholar H. C. Robbins Landon suggests are the models for Mozart’s works in the genre. Certainly the extended instrumental introduction is promising until the horns barge into the room and all polite conversation is quickly stilled. At this point one might be forgiven for surreptitiously checking one’s watch and planning a quick getaway. Not great music by any means but even the charm of the Romance has little chance to shine through all this bluster.

Kerry Turner’s ‘Twas a dark and stormy night for two horns and strings ought to bring some respite but instead it offers more of the same. There is the now familiar stridency from the horns but this time without even the tiny compensation of memorable music to go with it. It’s described as a ‘tone poem’ but one would be hard pressed to work out exactly what scene it attempts to paint. Its vaguely Mahlerian horn at the start raises expectations but, regrettably, the rest turns out to be as clichéd as the title.

Altogether a very disappointing disc. These are clearly two players with large personalities and a sound to match and the blatant recording does them no favours. As for the Sinfonietta Cracovia they are consigned to the musical wilderness, unable to make themselves heard in such voluble company. The liner notes are barely adequate and at a shade under 54 minutes the disc is hardly good value. In short, attractive music deep-sixed by overpowering soloists and an underpowered orchestra.

Dan Morgan


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