Roguish Mozart from Pip Eastop in Mozart’s horn concertos

Mozart: Horn Concertos 1-4; Horn Quintet in E flat major K407

Pip Eastop; Eroica String Quartet; The Hanover Band/ Anthony Halstead (Hyperion CDA68097)

Modestly, the booklet biography of Anthony Halstead for this release makes reference only to his conducting or directing from the harpsichord. There’s not a word about his pioneering work as an outstanding horn soloist with any number of period instrument ensembles from the 1980s – a time of rapid expansion in the range of repertoire being explored by the original instrument brigade and in developing techniques for playing them. Halstead recorded the four Mozart concertos twice; with the Hanover Band in 1987 and the Academy of Ancient Music in 1993. Even across that six-year span, it is possible to detect a more secure technique in the playing on the later AAM recording. Now, he passes on the baton (or horn) to Pip Eastop for this terrific new disc, Halstead assuming the role of conductor and assistant recording producer.

The greatest challenges playing these concertos on the natural horn is in ‘filling in the gaps’ between the natural notes by hand-stopping, i.e. placing the right hand in the ball to varying degrees to reduce the pitch. Where Halstead smoothed the contours of the many stopped notes in these works, Eastop appears to relish the jagged edges. This results in performances that are highly individual, delighting in the instrument’s ebullience. In the booklet, he likens the character of the natural horn against its modern valved orchestral cousin as “rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful and idiosyncratic – perhaps more Robin Hood than James Bond”! The cheeky roguishness of Eastop’s playing is certainly more Errol Flynn than 007, but some listeners may be shaken rather than stirred by these performances.

The whoops, snarls and gurgles of the hand-stopped notes induced reactions from this listener ranging from snorts of laughter to fist pumps. Eastop has a wicked way with cadenzas, pushing the horn to its extreme limits, colouring the notes dramatically, sometimes veiling them mysteriously. They won’t be to everyone’s taste, so I’d counsel sampling before purchase, but I thoroughly enjoyed Eastop’s exuberance.

All of Mozart’s horn concertos were composed for Joseph Ignaz Leutgeb (or Leitgeb) who was a family friend of Mozart’s father, Leopold. The excellent booklet notes by Richard Payne scotch the tale that Leutgeb ran his father-in-law’s meat and cheese shop in Vienna. Apparently, the shop was sold on in 1764, so the anecdotes about cheesemonger Leutgeb are riper than oozing Camembert. What’s not in doubt is that Leutgeb was frequently the butt of Mozart’s jests, with the score to Concerto No.4 (K495) littered with outrageous jokes at his soloist’s expense in different coloured inks. The dedication for the first concerto, from 1783, describes Leutgeb as “ass, ox and fool”.

Despite the composer’s good-natured jibes, Leutgeb must have been a very fine player. He had been a soloist at the Burgtheater and there’s every chance that Haydn’s D major Concerto was written for him.

The concertos are presented by Hyperion in chronological rather than numerical order. The first three are all in the key of E flat major, but the concerto usually numbered 1 (K412) was actually the last to be written and this was in the key of D major. This key lay lower and was less taxing for Leutgeb, who was then in his fifties. The second movement Rondo: Allegro is reconstructed for this recording by Stephen Roberts. Eastop suggested reinstating Mozart’s original intentions, before he succumbed to Leutgeb’s requests for alterations to the solo part, reflecting his waning powers.

Eastop sails through the challenges with aplomb. His playing possesses plenty of agility and he can phrase slow movements gracefully. Halstead’s tone on his two recordings may have been broader and fuller in tone, but Eastop’s horn sound is more pungent and characterful. He is matched by a very stylish Hanover Band, afforded a far less reverberant acoustic than many Nimbus recordings suffered back in the 1980s. The string playing is lean, with clean articulation and punch to the accents. I wonder what Halstead thinks of the harpsichord-heavy Hanover Band from his 1987 recording… for the harpsichord is banished from this new disc.

After the concertos comes a lovely reading of the Horn Quintet K407, the earliest work Mozart composed for Leutgeb. In this, the composer employs two violas instead of two violins, giving a slightly darker string palette, admirably conveyed here by the Eroica Quartet. After the raucous, rambunctious concertos, the quintet offers an amiable postlude, performed with much charm. This is a clear winner of a disc, destined to bring many a smile through the winter gloom.

This review originally appeared in IRR.

Comparisons: Concertos

Anthony Halstead; Hanover Band (Nimbus) NI 5104 (1987)

Anthony Halstead; Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood (Decca) 443 216-2 (1993)

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