May 25, 2006


Mendelssohn: Octet for Four Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos; Bruch: Octet for Four Violins, Two Violas, Cello and Double Bass. Kodály Quartet; Auer Quartet; Zsolt Fejérvári, double bass. Naxos. $8.99.

Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 2-4; Horn Quintet, K407. Wilhelm Bruns, natural horn; Quadriga-Quartett; Mannheimer Mozartorchester conducted by Thomas Fey. Profil. $16.99.

     Some music is a simple joy to hear – disguising the difficulties of performing it well.  The Octet by 16-year-old Felix Mendelssohn is a perfect case in point.  Bright, fleet-footed (especially in the wonderful Scherzo), and apparently effortlessly constructed, it is a work that produces unalloyed pleasure hearing after hearing.  But it is not simple to play well – to get eight instruments to produce the sort of lightness and clarity that the work demands, while still bringing forth fullness of sound when required.  The Kodály and Auer Quartets do an excellent job with this work, melding their somewhat different ensemble sounds into a combined one that fits the joyous music as if there could be nothing simpler.  This is, of course, a very difficult thing to do.

     The difficulties of Bruch’s Octet, and its apparent simplicity, are of another order.  Far less known than Mendelssohn’s work, Bruch’s is a darker-hued piece because of the inclusion of a bass instead of one cello.  It is also, for all its rhythmic vitality, the product of a very different time in its composer’s life. Mendelssohn lived only 38 years, but Bruch lived 82, and the Octet is one of his last works, published posthumously.  It is tempting to compare this work with Mendelssohn’s, but unfair to both of them to do so.  Bruch’s lightness is always only a step away from intense emotion, while Mendelssohn’s seems to flow from endless optimism.  The performers’ sound in the Bruch is darker and more contained, and the lovely central Adagio gets the full Romantic treatment it deserves.  The pairing of these quartets on a single CD is unusual.  This release proves it very worthwhile.

     The pleasures of Wilhelm Bruns’ horn playing are of a different sort.  His instrument, the natural horn for which Mozart wrote his horn concertos, is a simpler-looking instrument than the modern valved horn, and is far more limited in the notes it is capable of playing.  Mozart, ever one to push the boundaries, insisted on tremendous virtuosity from Joseph Leutgeb, the player for whom he wrote the concertos.  Mozart’s scores constantly and rather crudely chide Leutgeb, warning him of the difficulties of the music and occasionally reminding him that there is not much further to go.

     Bruns’ inspired playing shows just how difficult Leutgeb’s task was.  The natural horn produces different levels and qualities of sound for different notes, and some notes sound purer than others.  Runs, so much a fixture on valved horns, are very difficult to play.  Hand stopping to alter pitch is an absolute necessity and must be done with great care to produce the right note.  Bruns has thoroughly mastered all these techniques, and his concerto playing is wonderful.  The works themselves sound quite different here from the way they sound on a valved horn.  The finale of No. 2, for example, has greater intensity and forward motion than that of No. 3; on the valved horn, the reverse is true.  As for the lovely Quintet, it sounds like a true collaboration of equals here, since there are very few notes on which the horn’s sound automatically overpowers that of the strings and has to be held in check.

     So this is a must-have CD for lovers of Mozart’s horn works.  But it does have some peculiarities.  The concertos are not identified by their common numbers – only by their Köchel catalogue listings (417, 447 and 495).  The first concerto, K412, is omitted, even though it runs a mere 8½ minutes and would easily have fit on a CD that is now just 57½ minutes long.  And if you want to know about the Quadriga-Quartett, you have to read German: all the booklet notes are given in two languages except for the information on this ensemble.  These inelegances of presentation are worth overlooking because of the quality of Bruns’ playing and the highly interesting performances that result.  But the existence of the lapses from a company as good as Profil is puzzling.

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