Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo horn
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 1, 1972, Lawrence Foster conducting, with soloist Barry Tuckwell
Joseph Leutgeb (1732-1811) was the preeminent Austrian horn player of the second half of the 18th century, concertizing widely in continental Europe. In 1763 he became first horn of the orchestra in Salzburg, where he became friends with the Mozart family. He traveled with them in Italy, Leopold Mozart loaned Leutgeb money when he moved to Vienna in 1777, and Leutgeb remained a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus to the end of the composer’s life. (In his last letters to his wife, Mozart mentions staying with Leutgeb and socializing with him.)
So it might not be surprising then that the first work Mozart composed in 1781 after he too relocated to Vienna was his first work for horn and orchestra, a Rondo in E-flat major, K. 371. Mozart ended up writing four concertos and a quintet with strings for the horn, all with Leutgeb in mind. Mozart included some characteristically pungent humor at Leutgeb’s expense in the manuscripts, but he clearly had enormous affection for the older musician and utmost respect for his abilities.
“Ein Waldhorn Konzert für den Leutgeb” (a hunting horn concerto for Leutgeb) was how Mozart described K. 495 in his own catalog. He used ink of four different colors in the manuscript, and the work is indeed a merry one, at least in the vivacious outer movements. The horn at that time was the natural, valveless instrument, and Mozart flaunts (or challenges) Leutgeb’s hand-stopping ability with chromatic lines in the first movement and lively passagework in the finale. The central Romanza is essentially an instrumental song, a typically Mozartean transformation of hunting horn commonplaces into reflective grace.
– John Henken