These eight works from the middle of the 18th century represent the first flowering of the French horn as a concertante instrument. Brought out of the hunting field and into the concert room, we might be able to point to earlier works involving the horn (Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto spring to mind) but here we have it playing both a solo role and mingling with a chamber ensemble with notable success. The initial problems with the horn – its somewhat uncouth and uncontrollable tone, its extreme volume and, above all, its very limited pitch range – seemed to have been largely resolved by the time the earliest of these works – the Telemann trio sonata (here referred to as a Concerto à 3 – came along. So much so, in fact, that Telemann, with his characteristic passion for unearthing unexpected instrumental sounds, manages to produce a very passable duet for horn and descant recorder. Neither Carl Heinrich Graun nor Leopold Mozart seem completely able to shake off the Horn’s hunting field image, and the constant whooping up and down the four primary notes of the instrument’s harmonic sequence in the Mozart Concerto serve only to underline its lack of melodic flexibility. Mozart overcomes this with a certain level of humour (the booklet notes suggest that “only a composer with a sense of humour would write nine bars of trills in the first ten bars of the last movement”) but I find the Graun works generally lack personality; they have a clear logic and are neatly executed, but do not have that ability to lodge in the mind once they have strutted their stuff.
Two particularly significant works here are the Divertimento by Haydn and the Quintet by Mozart. There is grace and elegance in the first of these, the horn sitting quite comfortably in between a violin and cello, and revealing here a beautifully ringing top register. The Mozart Quintet has earned itself a place in the repertory, and is certainly the most accomplished work presented here. This claims to be the first recording of the edition made by Johann Anton Andre in 1802/3 who was working from the original manuscripts he had purchased from Mozart’s widow, but Anton made several changes, notably transposing some of the horn part up an octave, which subsequent editions reversed, so to many ears this will sound a little odd. Nevertheless, this performance maintains a wonderful lightness of touch and buoyant energy which preserves the happy, playful character of the work.
Also appearing for the first time on CD (as a soloist) is our guide through these early horn concertante works, Danish player Ursula Paludan Monberg. Her biography suggests that the natural horn was a “perfect fit” and the “perfect way” for “her inner voice to sing” (artist biographies remain gloriously free from objectivity). It is disappointing that no details are given of the horn(s) she plays here (if it were a stringed or keyboard instrument we would be almost overburdened with historic detail of the instrument and its maker) and while we must assume it is as authentic as can be, I am surprised how well regulated and mellow the sound Paludan Monberg produces from it is, and how precise she is in her pitching (does she achieve all this without any hand-stopping?). She produces a gloriously clear and ringing upper register, which is admirably displayed in the Haydn, which also gives a fine taste of the strength of her lower register. Paludan Monberg is certainly a superb exponent on the natural horn, and is ever conscious of the musical context, fitting in well to the various instrumental ensembles. Often the horn dominates on purely dynamic terms (a natural consequence of the instrument’s design), but Paludan Monberg generously compensates for this with some astute musical blending with the players of Arcangelo and their ever-sensitive director, Jonathan Cohen.
Marc Rochester – Music Web International