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Friday, October 15, 2010

CD Review: Amiable Mozart on the Natural Horn

The natural horn comes to the fore on this new reissue of a 1988 recording from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Mozart's four horn concertos, plus two fragmentary rondos written for the combination of horn and small orchestra.

Lowell Greer. Photo © 2010 by John Edwin Mason
This is a pleasant set of recordings, dominated by the opportunity to hear soloist Lowell Greer and his formidible technique on the instrument.  Throughout, he is expertly accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, who display a light touch for Mozart under the direction of Nicholas McGegan.

Mr. Greer's instrument, a reconstruction of a French-style horn originally built in Paris in 1818) may sound odd to modern listeners. The pitch sometimes wavers above the strings, and the highest range of the instrument is often a dicey proposition. But these self-imposed technological limitations do not prevent this from being a thoroughly enjoyable set of performances, and one that is of considerable interest to horn aficionadoes and Mozart lovers alike.

The horn is a tricky instrument. From the technologically complex orchestral horns used around the world, to the old-fashioned pumpflugleeln horns used by the Vienna Philharmonic to the "natural" horns with their system of small pipes ("crooks") that are placed and replaced in order to change keys as needed, the sweetest-voiced member of the brass family remains a challenge to keep in tune, let alone play well.

Like most of Mozart's concertos for wind instruments, the horn concertos were composed with a particular soloist in mind. In this case, it was Josef Ignatz Leutgelb, who played in the private court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg before moving to Vienna, setting up a cheese shop and continuing to play music. Herr Mozart had a contentuous relationship with his hornist, scribbling "Silly Ass Leutgelb" across the top of the autograph score of one of the concertos. However, that did not stop the composer from writing beautiful melodies for the instrument.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.