One of the all-time great Radio 3 programmes I've heard was during a week-long series on Mozart's fragments. Although I only caught one of them it was enough to reveal that several fragments showed more invention than many of Mozart's completed works. Of these fragments, a Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello and piano, a piece for clarinets and basset horns and an Allegro for horn were particular highlights. The last mentioned piece (K494a) is included on this disc.
Interestingly, K494a is the only piece on this CD left as a fragment. Two others (K370b and K514) were completed by John Humphries and Franz Sussmayr (of Requiem completion fame). The question is: do the pieces actually need completion? The abrupt ending of K494a tells us that it was abandoned for some reason, and it sounds none the worse for lacking a cadence, development or recapitulation. It is presumably Mozart we want to hear, not a modern editor, so why bother?
Anyway, these extra pieces are a real bonus, their collective quality being at least as high as those works in the established 'canon' of four concertos and that Rondo completed by Sussmayr. As this edition makes clear, however, the distinction between Mozart canon and apocrypha for horn is somewhat blurred. The established Concerto No 1 in D features a dubious ending (by Sussmayr again), so doubtful, in fact, that an alternative ending is provided here by (who else?) John Humphries.
According to musical legend, Beethoven is believed to have said of Sussmayr that if he did indeed write much of Mozart's Requiem, then he too was a Mozart. But what of John Humphries and his reconstructions and completions? Is he another Mozart? Or even another Sussmayr? Well, he seems competent enough to disguise the joins between Mozart and Humphries, let's put it that way, and probably sensible enough to try and do the minimum of Mozart's 'writing' for him. Ultimately, however, we don't know, because we've no way of knowing exactly where Mozart left off - not without visiting various European libraries, at least.
Michael Thomas and the Bournemouth Sinfonia convey the joie de vivre of these works written for an instrument and a player (the Mozart family's old friend, Joseph Leutgeb) that brought out the more vivacious and playful side of Mozart's musical personality. All of the pieces here are in major keys (mostly Eb, to suit the nature of the horn) and the usual Mozartian shadows are banished.
This CD is memorable not just for the reconstruction and editing of John Humphries. He also provides excellent accompanying notes in which he tells us, for instance, that Mozart's son gave his father's manuscript pages away as souvenirs (whether of K370b or K371 or both isn't entirely clear though) and that one of such manuscripts, containing 60 bars of musical notation, was recovered as recently as 1989, a mere six years before the recording was made.
This is a real bargain. Mozart is thought of as having written four horn concertos, but in fact the first (probably written last!) was finished by Sussmayr. Here we have not only Sussmayr's completion, but also a reconstruction of Mozart's original thoughts. We also get a Rondo, and an incomplete fragment of a concerto in E major. One of the well-known concertos even has extra bars in that were recently discovered. So this is a very complete look at the music, and it's also very well played and recorded. Definitely worth buying!
Mozart concertos are more recorded now than they ever have been and we are in the debt of Naxos for having given us such a comprehensive set of recordings of Mozart's works for Horn and Orchestra at bargain price with the additional editorial help, reconstruction and liner notes of John Humphries.
None of this would, of course, have been of any use if the performances and recordings had not been of a high quality to be able to enjoy Mozart (with his musicologist's helpers) in a series of excellent interpretations.
Another reviewer mentioned some (slower) speeds with Michael Thompson's readings, however if you do go back and look at other notable exponents, for example, Dennis Brain, Barry Tuckwell and Alan Civil, to name just three of my favourite artists from the past, you will see that many of the timings are similar and we should not forget that well judged speeds can help with creating even more poise than going too fast.
In many of the opening Allegro movements Mozart (or his editors) do qualify some with Moderato or Maestoso - the latter a favourite addition to many of Mozart's Allegro marked concertos so speed is not everything in assessing performances of these horn concertos in my view and Mozart acknowledged this in his scores.
Having the Bournemouth Sinfonietta as accompanists has been a happy experience with Thompson directing from the horn, neat and poised playing from the orchestra matches very well with the overall concept of the performances and the clarity of the recording cannot be faulted with the excellent acoustics of the Wessex Hall, Poole helping to add to the overall enjoyment of these performances.
Michael Thompson's pedigree from playing in the Philharmonia Orchestra has also strengthened his ensemble playing in a similar way to Richard Watkins who succeeded him as the Philharmonia's principal horn and who himself recorded these concertos with great success.
So all in all there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in Michael Thompson's Mozart Horn Concerto performances and they would make a welcome addition to sit alongside other classic performances on your CD shelves, the speeds are to my mind extremely well judged and the final rondos are sparkling with a nice tender touch in the slow movements and as in previous examples of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta's accompanying, lively and polished orchestral support which enhances Mozart in all the concertos.
Has the Allegro Vivace of the Rondo in K495 ever had such a light bounce to it than in Michael Thompson's expert hands?
Good to have the four horn concerti and some other fragments on one CD. They all seem ably played and the technical aspect of the production is not to quibble about at the price.
Michael Thompson was not an artiste I had previous knowledge of, but he acquits himself well here, except that he does take a less-than-quick reading of all the passages marked "allegro". Although this helps to bring out the orchestral detail, and often provide a kind of lilt that is lacking in most other renditions, I cannot help feeling that he should have got more of a move on; he is clearly capable of playing just about anything at any speed, but his metronome seems to have a speed limiter in place.
An enjoyable collection nevertheless, once you have adjusted your expectations of the tempi.
I become narky whenever someone suggests that Mozart's Horn Concertos are inferior to their counterparts with the piano. Is it necessarily so? True, they're a different conception: more concise and less lavishly orchestrated. But is Neptune, a cerulean sphere with moons and rings of its own, any less a marvel than the planet Jupiter on the basis of mere size? And what could one say of K 417 that could do it justice? Its genesis is well known: "W. A. Mozart took pity on (Joseph) Leitgeb, ass, ox and fool in Vienna on 27 May 1783." It was also written gaily in different colours of ink to confuse the `onlie begetter'. It is customarily eclipsed by K 447 & K 495. These circumstances aside, it is a masterpiece; one glorious melody follows another, underwritten one and all by the velvety tone of this unique instrument. Mozart's exhilaration - what a joy it must be to create like God - is evident in the prelude of the first movement. And just when one is glutted on the surfeit of melodies, the Salzburg Kid unleashes a haymaker some two thirds of the ways into the finale which the oboe takes up as a reprise. Our feathered friends from the Sanctus of the Sparrow Mass, K 220, also make an appearance in this movement. Yes indeed: holy-rollers might think that picking up snakes and speaking in glossolalia are encounters with the divine . . . . . . .
Now the great merit of this disc is that it contains all of Mozart's concertante works for horn, complete compositions and fragments alike. Other than concert arias and canons, I rarely hear Mozart nowadays which is new to me. K 307b , a large Allegro Fragment in E Flat for Horn and Orchestra, falls to that category. Mozart left it unfinished. After his death, one of his sons ever so thoughtfully handed out its pages to souvenir-hunters - what a goose! Now that much of it has resurfaced, a reconstruction has been attempted. I like it. Even if it is not a match for the other concertos, the hand of the Master is evident, not least in the bars leading into the cadenza.
In addition to including the usual concertos, Michael Thompson and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta include the delightful Rondo in E Flat, K 371, which should be included on all surveys of Mozart's Horn Concertos. The big fragment, K 494e also features; it is notable for not having an orchestral prelude - and again, a melody bestrides through its bars like a colossus. The second half of the so-called first Horn Concerto, K 412 / K 514, was written in the last year of Mozart's life and left unfinished at his death. Mister `Duck in the Thunderstorm', Franz Xaver Süssmayr, he of Requiem fame, was asked by Constanze to complete it so it could be published. Ever so laconically, he did so by inserting a cantus firmus: the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Presumably this was a tribute to his teacher. It is likewise included in this collection, together with an alternative reconstruction by John Humphries which does not supplant the former.
While this survey is not in the same class as the classic Dennis Brain account or indeed, the Gerd Seifert traversal from 1969 (both of which feature Herbie at the helm), it is still highly collectable, albeit more for its content than musicality though the latter is not to be impugned. Thompson might be less evocative than the players mentioned above but his technique is sure and highly musical (as an old horn-player myself, it sounds like he uses his right-hand throughout much of K 371 to shape the line). While I would not walk over broken glass to hear the Bournemouth Sinfonietta in person, they play for all they are worth and then some more. The cello and bass-line, which so often go missing in performances by chamber ensembles, are firm and evident throughout. The digital recording by Naxos is first-rate.
If I lost this disc or if it was flogged by a villain with taste, I would unhesitatingly replace it. Five stars, then.