Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As is often the case, when Concerto Italiano’s hornists were good, they were great. Their sound had a fascinatingly gritty texture, much closer to the horn’s hunting-party origins than to the mellow, warm sound of a modern instrument. But when they were off — oh, dear, what a mess!

Strangely, some believe that period horn playing is meant to sound thus. When I was in music school, I had a job in a record store and would sometimes stay after hours to listen to new releases. One was a period-instrument recording of Handel’s “Water Music” on which the horns were consistently flat. When I crinkled my nose, the store’s manager said, dismissively:

“Oh, you don’t understand. It’s only because of showoffs like Don Smithers” — a brilliant Baroque trumpeter who was also my music history teacher at the time — “that people think these instruments can be played in tune. But they aren’t meant to be.”

I didn’t buy that argument then, and having heard many superb Baroque hornists, I find it less tenable now.

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