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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Horn Concertos: 1 in D K.412, 2 in E flat K.417, 3 in E flat K.447, 4 in E flat K.495, Quintet for piano and wind in E flat K.452
Dennis Brain (horn), Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (concertos), Colin Horsley (piano), Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble – Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Cecil James (bassoon), Dennis Brain (horn) (quintet)
Recorded 12, 13, 23/11/1953, Kingsway Hall, London (concertos), 19, 23/5/1954, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (quintet)
Great Recordings of the Century series
EMI CLASSICS CDM 5 66898 2 [77:26]


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Perhaps there is little to say here. Dennis Brain is one of those artists, like Lipatti, Ferrier and Kapell, whose tragically brief lives have raised them to myth status. Not all myths stand up to investigation but this one does. You won’t hear these concertos played with a more nobly projected tone, more innately musical phrasing or more sheer sense of what they are about. Listen to the dynamic shading around the development section of the opening movement of no. 3. In some hands these works can seem a bit of a muchness, but Brain finds a different character for each one; joyful in no. 1, Magic Flute-ish in no. 2, more intimate in no. 3 and grander in no. 4. It may be noticed that in this last work, while not sacrificing the mellow purity of tone displayed elsewhere, he adds just the tiniest trace of vibrato to give greater body to the sound. He is well assisted in all this by Karajan who shows his customary care for detail without the over-preening which sometimes damaged his later Mozart readings. Add to this a recording which still sounds extraordinarily well – at times I seemed to be hearing stereo definition, an illusion which a few of the very best mono discs were able to create – and you have a winner.

The quintet recording, though slightly later, wears its years less well, with close, overbearing piano recording and unlovely wind sound. To tell the truth, I don’t think the others are on Brain’s level and I wonder if the acidulous quality of his brother’s oboe is all the fault of the engineering. But never mind, even if you can do better for this particular work, the concertos are the thing, and not all versions give you a coupling at all.

This is unquestionably one of the "Great Recordings of the Century". At the risk of muddying the waters though, I have to point out that post-war Britain was extraordinarily well-endowed with horn players and that the recordings by Civil/Klemperer and Tuckwell/Maag are also in that category. Nor do I wish to suggest that players from other countries, and some more recent performers, have not produced fine recordings too. There are also earlier recordings by Brain of some of the concertos and a notable one of no. 3 by his father Aubrey.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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