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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Shanghai Mozart Dream
Horn Concerto No.3 in E flat, K447 [15:05]
Quintet for Horn, Violin, 2 Violas and Cello in E flat, K407 [14:44]
Divertimento No.15 in B flat, K287 [41:42]
Han Xiaoming (horn)
Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken/Joseph Swensen
Jane Lehmann-Han (horn), Lei Hou (violin), Qing Hou (violin and viola), Likuo Chang (viola), Ray Wang (cello), Martin Dobner (double bass)
rec. 1993-99, Studios of Saarland Radio, Germany

These three recordings stretching back to the 1990s and made some six years apart, show little sign of their age, and the only significant sense that they were not all made at the same time is an increasing edge to Xiaoming Han’s tone, which for the Concerto is smooth and well rounded, while by the time we reach the Quintet has evolved into something with rather more of a cutting edge. In all other respects these recordings more than hold their own in sound quality with anything that has come up since - a testament it has to be said to the excellent engineering and production of the Saarland Radio technicians and the Oehms production team. As performances they are not, perhaps, at the cutting edge of scholarly Mozart interpretations, going for the full-blooded modern horn tone and rich orchestral sound. But many will relish this unashamedly romantic view of Mozart and the comforting generosity of the overall sound, and few will deny that, for all its avoidance of perceived authenticity in Mozart performance practice, these performances have undeniable musical integrity and interpretative sincerity.

The title of the disc – “Shanghai Mozart Dream” – may seem a little puzzling. After all, Mozart never visited China, let alone Shanghai, and one doubts that he ever dreamt of the place. The various players on this disc are all drawn from either the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But possibly more than Mozart, this disc celebrates the Shanghai-born horn player, Han Xiaoming, and his circle of musical friends many of whom have a Shanghai connection. Although he has been a member of the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra since 1985, Han retains professional ties with the city of his birth, holding the position of Guest Professor of Horn at the Shanghai Conservatory. Quite where the “dream” of the title comes from is open to conjecture.

The disc contains three differently-constituted works from Mozart’s burst of horn-focused compositional activity inspired by Joseph Leutgeb. The Concerto may not be the most famous of the four, but it is a work of enormous charm and fundamental happiness, qualities which are superbly realised in this relaxed, well-tailored and generously-proportioned performance. The performance of the Horn Quintet feels like eavesdropping on an intimate gathering of friends (which is, surely, what chamber music is all about?), collaborating in music they know and love, and the sense of fellow-feeling throughout the ensemble is tangible; this is chamber playing of real artistry.

For me, however, it is the Divertimento which is the greatest joy on this disc. A delightful work which, the booklet notes tell us, was written for the name day of Countess Maria Antonia Lodron (June 13, 1777) and first performed at an outdoor party on that day, this is a performance which celebrates both the informality of the occasion and the sheer happiness of the music. The star of the show here is not Han but the violinist Lei Hou, herself a former student at the Shanghai Conservatory and since 1997 a violinist with the Chicago Symphony, whose eloquent tone and beautifully measured vibrato gives a lovely purity to the excursions in the highest register which is such a feature of the violin writing here. Again the playing across the ensemble feels like a gathering of friends rather than a carefully rehearsed professional presentation, and while it lacks for nothing in its security, musical authority and coordination, more notable is the sense of sheer enjoyment which permeates every bar. This is a sheer joy to listen to.

Marc Rochester



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