sat 13/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet

Classical CDs Weekly: Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet

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Sarah Willis and colleagues prepare to escape from Berlin


Hewitt plays MozartMozart: Piano Concertos no 6, 8 and 9 Angela Hewitt (piano), Orchestra da Camera di Mantova (Hyperion)

This first volume in Angela Hewitt’s projected Mozart concerto series deserves praise for featuring three early pieces, instead of starting with the better-known mature works. Which isn’t a slight on these three concertos, each of which sounds like fully-formed Mozart, particularly the Concerto no 9, written when the composer was 20. Rather than a work made up of solos interspersed with tutti passages, piano and orchestra feel inseparable here, the piano making a cheeky entrance within seconds of the concerto’s opening. And the key of Eb seems to provide the cue for some sublime orchestral wind writing, with some delicious solos for oboes and horn in the first movement. Hewitt really shines in the enigmatic, melancholy slow movement, its brooding aria perfectly cast for a Baroque keyboard specialist to play. So few notes, but the art lies in making such superficially simple music express so much. This work is a masterpiece, and I’m glad that it was Hewitt’s performance which was my introduction to it.

The two earlier concertos are more conventional, but each offers many incidental pleasures – the flamboyant horn writing in the last movement of no 6, or the combination of grandeur and effervescence at the start of no 8. Hewitt’s performances, directing the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova from the keyboard, are brilliant. She’s both witty and profound. And, most importantly, she’s never too sweet or sentimental in her approach; Mozart’s music doesn’t need kid gloves or an excess of sugar to have an impact. You also get Hewitt’s erudite, entertaining sleeve notes in the CD booklet.


Karabits conducts TchaikovskyTchaikovsky: Symphony no 2, Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain, Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits (Onyx)

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies aren’t heard enough, eternally overshadowed by the doomier later ones. I’ve long had a soft spot for the five-movement Third, but here’s a scintillating new account of the revised version of no 2, the Little Russian – so called because of Tchaikovsky’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes. And it’s performed here by a Ukrainian conductor, who manages to make a British orchestra sound remarkably Slavic. Kirill Karabits’ approach is bold, declamatory – the moody horn solo a touch more brazen than usual, and the first movement’s climax is incendiary.  But this is also a symphony which oozes charm, and Karabits’ inner movements are played with smiling grace. Tchaikovsky’s brassy finale offers a lesson in how to endlessly develop a simple idea without ever making it sound dull. There’s a terrific moment in this performance a few minutes before the symphony closes, where a huge tam-tam stroke temporarily brings proceedings to a halt before a very Tchaikovskian happy ending.

Karabits’ couplings include the original version of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, usually heard in Rimsky-Korsakov’s performing edition, a soft-grained recomposition, complete with schmaltzy coda. Mussorgsky’s satanic original is rougher, brassier and infinitely more unsettling, ending with a bang. And it’s this edginess which I’ve always found missing from Ravel’s finicky orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s superbly dispatched here, but I’d much rather hear the unadorned piano original. Orchestral playing is predictably excellent, and Onyx’s recording is detailed and immediate.

Four Corners!Four Corners! Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet (Gebr. Alexander)

Sarah Willis, fourth horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded an outstanding version of the Brahms Horn Trio which was reviewed last year. This disc, again released by the German horn makers Alexander, is fluffier stuff – a disc of arrangements where, as the Alexander website puts it, “Stefan Dohr, Sarah Willis, Klaus Wallendorf and Fergus McWilliam travel to the four corners of the world and breach the highest and lowest barriers on their 103s from Alexander." Do we need a disc of music arranged for horn quartet? Of course we do. This is an instrumental combination which works, emphatically so: the instument’s enormous range mean that a good arrangement can use the horns like a mini SATB choir. Willis’s bass register is impressive, especially in a swinging take on Waltzing Matilda. And this quartet make a perfect, very European horn sound – fruity but not too dark, with plenty of tonal variety.

They‘re treated to a bunch of consistently clever, witty arrangements, from a variety of sources. There’s a medley of Western film and TV themes, complete with a dash of Morricone and bovine sound effects during "Rawhide". "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has the quartet sweetly singing in places. We get a snatch of "On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at", snippets of Grieg’s Peer Gynt alongside chunks of Johann Strauss and Brahms, all exploiting these players‘ talents. No one sounds underused – one of the arrangers writes in the sleeve notes about the need to ensure that each player gets a chance to shine, whatever register they’re playing in. Horn buffs won’t need persuading to buy this disc. The rest of you should buy it too.

Watch "The Making of Four Corners!"

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