Mozart: Complete Wind Concertos On Period Instruments

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Doing my usual bit of online research for re-released recordings, I found these CDs in their former incarnation as credited to the ‘Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy’. This band was founded in 1985 by Thomas Crawford, and changed its name to the American Classical Orchestra in 1999. Formed from leading period instrument performers in the New York metropolitan area this is a highly regarded orchestra, and positive commentary on these concerto recordings reflects the excellent quality which you can expect throughout this usefully packaged set. All but one of the wind soloists are members of the orchestra, and very good they are too.

This is a period instrument orchestra, so the sound is accordingly fairly gentle, though by no means hair-shirt. The upper strings are perhaps a little thinner than with a conventional modern orchestra, but with what sounds like gut strings and a minimal use of vibrato this is to be expected. In fact the sound is nicely rounded, almost sumptuous at times, and by no means cold. All of the orchestral instruments are listed at the back of the booklet, with makers’ names both modern and ancient, the modern instruments being replicas of early examples.

Eric Hoeprich is the only soloist not listed as an orchestral member, and indeed, I see him often enough wandering around the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague in his capacity as teacher, so this is no surprise. Far from saving the best until last, CD 1 of this set has some of the finest performances here, and the warm tones of Hoeprich’s basset horn or basset clarinet make for a lovely opening. The Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622 is one of Mozart’s late masterpieces – indeed his last major work, and is given a supremely sensitive if un-extrovert performance on this recording. The choice for using a basset horn is based on the instrument owned by the work’s dedicatee, Anton Stadler. This instrument has a lower range than a conventional clarinet, and the version here uses fairly recently discovered historical references to create as accurate as possible a reproduction of Stadler’s solo, right down to the creation of a new instrument replicating that shown in an engraving from a concert programme from 1794. The extra low sonorities do indeed make for an extra layer of sonority and richness which can be quite unexpected. Either way, it is a recording to cherish as well as one to put alongside old favourites for comparison.

From last to first, the Bassoon Concerto in B flat major K191 was Mozart’s first wind concerto, and despite inhabiting the gallant style of composers senior to Mozart the work is ambitious and technically demanding to soloists even today. Denis Godburn’s instrument has a soft and rounded tone whose warmth is both attractive and distinctive, and the recording is mercifully free of key rattle. Oboe soloist Marc Schachman wrote the booklet notes for this first disc, and he goes into some detail on the origins of the Oboe Concerto in C major K314, which we also hear on disc 2 in a version for flute. Historical mystery and obscurity aside, this is yet another excellent performance, with perhaps only an over-long cadenza to momentarily knock the some of the pace and energy from the first movement. The period oboe has a slightly broader, less sinewy resonance than the modern instrument, and this milder tone again makes for an attractive listen.

CD 2 is given over entirely to the flute concertos, of which the Flute Concerto in G major, K313 is arguably the finest. Sandra Miller plays a traverso flute from the period, which has a tone more akin to a recorder than the modern power-flutes we hear in orchestras these days. Unlike a recorder however, the horizontal blowing hole allows for greater flexibility of dynamics, colour and tuning, and Miller’s nicely centred tone rings out over the orchestra with fine projection and excellent intonation, making one wonder why Mozart had such an apparent loathing for the things. The Adagio non troppo central movement is a particular treat, the solo line topping the string texture while also being enveloped in it in a friendly meeting of musical lines and textures. As previously mentioned, the Flute Concerto in D major K314 is a fairly straight transposition of the Oboe Concerto in C major, if anything being given even more lightness and bounce in the flute version of the opening Allegro aperto. Indeed, the flute version shaves nearly two minutes from the oboe version, though this is partly down to cadenzas, all written or improvised by the soloists on these recordings. The Concerto for Flute and Harp K299 is justly popular, though I am sure this has as much to do with the wonderful sonorities created by this combination of instruments as with the actual musical material. Once again the soloists are beautifully balanced in the recording, and well matched even though there are no surviving usable pedal harps from Mozart’s time. The instrument used here must come close to what he would have expected to hear, with a marvellous transparency and gentle articulation and resonance played with fine musicality by Victoria Drake.

CD 3 covers pretty much all of Mozart’s surviving work for horn and orchestra. As far as absolute completeness goes we only appear to be missing the fragment left of a Horn Concerto K494a, and for that matter the Andante for flute and orchestra K315, but this is of little importance. What we do have are some useful notes by Robert D. Levin, which explains which works were written for whom, and how the score of K370b came to be re-united with itself after having been cut into pieces by Mozart’s son Carl. These performances on a natural horn do not bear comparison with the famous recordings made by the more beefy tones of legendary valve instrument players such as Dennis Brain or Alan Civil. The best period recordings I know are those of Anthony Halstead with Christopher Hogwood on Decca, which are admittedly more lively and characterful than these. R.J. Kelly’s tone is nicely rounded, and as to be expected from a well behaved classical natural horn, fairly restrained. The recording seems to emphasise the ‘damped’ nature of the instrument however, and there isn’t a great deal of contrast in the tone from one phrase or movement to the next. The famous quartet of concertos is K412, K417, K447 and K495, in addition to which we are given a version of a Horn Concerto in E flat major K370b/371 completed by Robert D. Levin in 1993. This was in the process of re-arrangement after Mozart had discovered that his soloist, Joseph Leutgeb, was unable to play the lowest notes at the grand age of 59 due to his loss of teeth. Levin has sorted out the confusion brought about by work done on the piece by Franz Xaver Süssmayr after Mozart’s death, and in any case restored the Mozart’s original intentions, “today’s hornist [not being] bound by Leutgeb’s lack of teeth.” The final track on the CD is the original conception of the Rondo K412, with the addition of faux-operatic vocalisations by Eric Dillner, expounding Mozart’s ‘sardonic dialogue’ as directed at Leutgeb, annotated throughout the score. This bit of fun is of little more than novelty value, and thank goodness the text is given with translation in the booklet. That Mozart, he was a naughty boy...

With technical assuredness and musical sensitivity from a fine set of period music specialist soloists this has to be pretty much the top of the heap when it comes to an authentic/historically informed collection of Mozart’s complete wind concertos. I’ve done a trawl for significant competition, but none of the ‘complete’ sets available seem to be on original instruments. Individual CDs can be found which do provide more impact from the music, and for those willing to spend a little more and do some searching around the Decca/L’Oiseau Lyre Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood do ultimately provide more satisfaction and depth of quality in general, though these American competitors do come very close indeed. There are one or two moments of very minor orchestral scrappiness in some of the accompaniments with the American Chamber Orchestra, but nothing which will offend even professionally tuned ears too much. The horn concertos are perhaps the least inspiring of the set and more serviceable than magical, but with plenty of scholarly work invested in the preparation of all of these performances there is always plenty of fascination in hearing what must be close to what Mozart’s audiences should have heard at the time.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NI2568-70

  • UPC: 710357256820

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Thomas Crawford

  • Performer: Dennis L. Godburn, Eric Dillner, Eric Hoeprich, Marc Schachman, R.J. Kelly, Sandra Miller, Victoria Drake