This is an inspiring and illuminating way to start 2015, seized upon with sterling musicianship and technical brilliance by Pip Eastop. This Hyperion issue presents all the music that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote for the horn-player Joseph Leutgeb, at the time Vienna’s finest, the scores peppered with various written insults from the composer!
Eastop has the gift of numerous timbres and effects, a wide range of dynamics, shares the fun of wacky cadenzas, is unfazed by high notes, can be audacious and – put simply – is a master of the natural horn, everything heard having to be made without the aid of added-later valves and sophisticated plumbing. This is flawless, poised and always musical playing. Each Concerto is genially attractive – especially the lovely slow movements and the ‘hunting’ finales – and indeed has attracted a legion of soloists and many recordings; one has only to think of such yesteryear legends as Dennis Brain, Alan Civil and Barry Tuckwell, a different sort of horn-history to the one now being purveyed by Pip Eastop.
What comes across vividly here is not only excellent, lively and melodious renditions but a real sense of (sometimes cheeky) enjoyment from all the performers, a feeling of being ‘authentic’ without pedantry and also of significant achievement, not least on Eastop’s part. The Concertos are placed in the order of 2, 4, 3 (my overall favourite) and 1, which is in fact chronologically correct, covering from 1783 to 1791. The last of these works is a two-movement job – the others all have three – with the finale “reconstructed by Stephen Roberts”, Eastop reverting to Mozart’s solo line and its greater challenges (Roberts took on board Leutgeb’s request to Süssmayr, who completed the orchestration and even departed from Mozart's design, for a simpler revision). You sometimes think that Eastop has a ‘bumper’ to help him out, for his dexterity and assortment is amazing.
If the finale of Concerto No.4 is the most familiar single movement here – brought off with exhilarating dash and a twinkle in the eye – then that is due in part to the music having transcended its origins by being immortalised in another setting, as a comic song by Michael Flanders & Donald Swann with the punning title of Ill Wind. The following words, written by Flanders, perfectly fit Mozart’s note-values. (Do sing along, but it’s a bit of a tongue-twister at Eastop’s swift tempo!)
“I once had a whim and I had to obey it /
To buy a French horn in a second-hand shop /
I polished it up and I started to play it /
In spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop”
I doubt anyone will want Eastop to cease his range of qualities, or his shapely phrasing, and he could not be better supported than by The Hanover Band and Anthony Halstead (himself a horn virtuoso). Similarly the Eroica Quartet, of necessity with Mozart’s two violists for a creamy-rich texture, have all the mellifluousness required for the Horn Quintet (1782), music that soothes, Eastop integrating effortlessly into the chamber dimension, his virtuosity no less pristine if smoother sounding. The finale is based on one of those maddening tunes that refuses to leave the memory!
All in all, this is a very distinguished and totally recommendable release that enjoys excellent recording quality and presentation, including a three-page “performance note” by Pip Eastop himself.