Hermann Baumann is easily one of the finest horn players of the second half of the 20th century. He came to prominence as a soloist in the 1960s and in 1964 won the prestigious ARD International Music Competition in Munich, beating out Jessye Norman for first place. A stroke in 1993 brought a long pause to Baumann's career, but he was eventually able to return to a very limited performing schedule. He is a stellar exemplar of the old German-Austrian tradition of horn playing; his tone is large and warmly enveloping, his legato lusciously creamy, his phrasing lyrically singing, and his technique and musicianship immaculate. His is the kind of paradigmatic sound likely to spring to mind when someone suggests "Imagine a French horn." He was also a very early exponent of the use of the natural horn, beginning in the mid-'60s, although he uses a modern valve horn for most of the Baroque and Classical repertoire recorded here. Except for the four Mozart and two Strauss concertos (and perhaps the two Haydn concertos and the Weber Concertino), plus a handful of chamber music by Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, and Dukas, the music on this seven-disc compilation is likely to be unfamiliar to all but the most devoted horn aficionados. It's in some of the more obscure repertoire, the Rossini Prélude, thème et variations and the Glière concerto, for instance, that Baumann's virtuosity is on most spectacular display. Of special interest is the disc devoted to music for hunting horn ensemble. Grande Messe de Saint Hubert by Jules Cantin and arranged by Baumann is strikingly eccentric but effective; it includes ensembles of both valve horns playing in modern equal temperament and hunting horns playing in natural temperament.
Baumann is accompanied by an impressive array of musicians, including Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, led by Kurt Masur, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by Pinchas Zukerman, and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by Iona Brown. The sound of the recordings made by Philips between 1983 and 1990 is consistently good. This is a collection that fans of horn music who don't demand period instrument performances will not want to miss.