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CD: MDT AmazonUK

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791) Horn Concerto No.1 in D K412 (386b)/514 (1791) [8:29]
Horn Concerto No.2 in E-flat K417 (1783) [13:11]
Horn Concerto No.3 in E-flat K447 (1784/7) [14:55]
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat K495 (1786) [16:23]
Quintet for horn, violin, two violas and cello in E-flat K407 [15:53]
David Pyatt (horn) Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner (concertos); Kenneth Sillito (violin); Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas); Stephen Orton (cello)
rec. Air Studios, London 18-21 December 1996 (concertos); St George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol 24 October 1996. DDD.
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 256468161-9 [69:41]

Experience Classicsonline

We are not exactly short of recordings of the Mozart Horn Concertos, even at budget price. The inevitable comparison for this reissue has to be the classic 1953 recording made by Dennis Brain and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, available for around the same price as the Apex reissue from Naxos Historical (8.111070) and with the same coupling, the Horn Quintet, with Walter Gieseking (piano) and the Philharmonia Wind Ensemble (Sidney Sutcliffe (oboe); Bernard Walton (clarinet); Dennis Brain (horn); Cecil James (bassoon)). Colin Clarke thought the Naxos re-mastering of the highest possible standard and advised that, at the price, it would be almost a crime not to snap it up – see review. Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can listen to that recording there and download the booklet.

EMI Classics, who first issued that Brain recording on the Columbia label, have reissued it several times, again coupled with the Horn Quintet: on Great Recordings of the Century 5668982, EMI Historical 3386032 and, most recently, on EMI Masters 9659362, all of which sell for around £5 to £6 in the UK.

I haven’t heard any of these EMI reissues, but in the case of the Naxos I find myself in complete agreement with Colin Clarke: the performances remain benchmarks for all subsequent versions and the recording, though dated, is no hindrance to their enjoyment.

The other classic accounts of these works came from Barry Tuckwell, whose performances are often typified as more down to earth than Brain’s: his recording with the ASMF and Neville Marriner remains available on EMI Encore 5749672, his 1990 Collins Classics remake, with Tuckwell as soloist and director of the Philharmonia, has been reissued by Alto on ALC1107, while his earliest recording, with Peter Maag, comes as part of a Double Decca, 466 2472, with the Clarinet, Flute and Oboe Concertos, or separately on Eloquence 476 9700. Owen Walton thought the Tuckwell/Maag versions never less than completely entertaining and well worth acquiring – see review.

In the unlikely event that none of these versions should please, there remains the highly-regarded version from Michael Thompson on Naxos 8.553592 with Concert Rondos and Concerto fragments). Colin Clarke was disappointed with Claire Briggs on Classics for Pleasure – see review – but others have been more impressed (3822272) with the Haydn Trumpet Concerto – recently deleted but may be worth searching for as a remainder. All these come at budget price, so the Apex reissue is up against strong competition.

When David Pyatt made these recordings for Erato in late 1996, he had very recently earned the accolade Gramophone Young Artist of the Year. The initial reviews, however, were rather mixed: Pyatt’s technical accomplishment was undoubted, but, while the Gramophone reviewer thought the performances heirs to a great tradition, combining the virtues of Brain and Tuckwell, his opposite number at BBC Music Magazine thought them lacking in a sense of humour. On the basis of the original review, the current (2010) Gramophone Guide still lists this recording, at full price, as one of the prime recommendations for these concertos.

What about that reservation about the comparative lack of humour? Humour – childish humour even – lies at the heart of these works, with Mozart poking fun at every opportunity in the score at the original soloist, Ignaz Leutgeb, so it’s almost impossible to play the music or listen to it with a straight face.

No straight performance of these concertos is ever going to match Flanders and Swann’s rendition of the Rondo from Concerto No.4, K495 – try listening to that movement without remembering the silly words, especially that excruciating rhyme “I found my horn/gorn”. It’s often said that their parody owed much to the speed at which Dennis Brain took the movement and the fun that he imparted to it, but he is actually slightly sedate at 3:34 against Pyatt’s 3:27 and not much faster than David Jolley with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG, at 3:39.

Incidentally, those Orpheus CO recordings would be more recommendable were they not divided between two horn soloists and spread across two CDs, still at full price, Nos.1 and 4 from David Jolley on 423 3772, with the Clarinet Concerto, and 2 and 3 from William Purvis on 423 6232, with the Oboe and Bassoon Concertos. Their reversion to full price is all the more puzzling, since they were briefly available at mid-price on DG 3D Classics.

There’s more to humour than speed alone. For one thing, it matters how well the tempo for the finale fits into those chosen for the work as a whole, so I compared Brain, Jolley and Pyatt throughout the whole of K495. Pyatt and Marriner take the opening movement at a fairly sedate 8:19, thereby heeding both parts of the direction Allegro maestoso. Jolley and the Orpheus CO take 8:14 and Brain and Karajan 8:03. The choice of cadenza makes simple timings irrelevant, but Jolley uses a modified version of the Brain cadenza, according to the DG notes, so, on the face of it, their two performances seem to stand at opposite extremes. The minimal notes in the Warner reissue fail to specify the cadenza employed: I understand that Terry Wooding supplied them for Nos. 3 and 4.

A more meaningful comparison would be that both Brain/Karajan and Pyatt/Marriner take exactly the same time, 6:34 to reach the start of the cadenza, with Jolley reaching that point about ten seconds earlier and expanding the Brain cadenza, which makes the three much more closely in agreement than might seem. More to the point, I could happily live with any of the three – have, indeed, lived happily with the Brain and Jolley until now.

The second movement, Romance, offers players something of an excuse to languish a little too much, a temptation which I think Jolley doesn’t wholly resist as much as he should. Perhaps Brain resists a little too much, but his performance is certainly as cantabile as one might wish. Pyatt’s tempo for this movement almost exactly splits the difference. Once again, any of these interpretations sounds fine on its own terms, but there is much to be said for the via media of the Warner Apex reissue, which doesn’t lose sight of the andante or the cantabile marking.

In the Rondo finale – one of the hunting movements with which Mozart often ends his concertos – Jolley also sounds slightly languid at times, though overall he is only five seconds slower than Brain and slightly faster than any of Barry Tuckwell’s versions. There’s all to, play for, then, for Pyatt and Marriner: can they persuade me of their tempo, the fastest of the three, and, more to the point, that they capture the spirit of the music? Are they a little too fast, perhaps, when Dennis Brain was considered fast in his day? Not for my money: the movement is labelled Allegro vivace and I think the tempo and overall performance of this Warner Apex reissue match that marking, rounding off in style a set of the concertos which I think fully equal to any comparisons, especially bearing the low price advantage in mind.

I said ‘rounding off’ but there is a substantial filler in the form of the Horn Quintet, in many respects a finer work than the concertos, which also receives an idiomatic and affectionate performance. With excellent – comparatively recent – recording throughout, only one small reservation stands in the way of an unreserved Bargain of the Month recommendation.

Despite their low price, Warner Apex CDs used to come with notes, but there are none with the present reissue. Given that budget-price CDs are most likely to appeal to comparative novices, who need to be guided – though this one can be confidently recommended to all comers – at the risk of endlessly repeating myself, I ask why the original Erato notes could not have been copied and included?

Brian Wilson



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