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BBC Legends - Dennis Brain, horn
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Quintet in E flat major, op.16 [22:23]
Benjamin Britten (piano), Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Dennis Brain (horn), Cecil James (bassoon)
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)

Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano, op.3 [20:55]
Dennis Brain Wind Quintet – Gareth Morris (flute), Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Dennis Brain (horn), Cecil James (bassoon),
George Malcolm (piano)
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Sonata for Horn and Piano [16:24]
Dennis Brain (horn), Noel Mewton-Wood (piano)
Gilbert VINTER (1909-1969)

Hunter’s Moon [5:14]
Dennis Brain (horn), BBC Concert Orchestra/Vilem Tausky
Recorded Aldeburgh Festival, 22nd June 1955 (Beethoven), BBC Studios London, 22nd July 1957 (Jacob), BBC Studios, London, 28th January 1953 (Hindemith), BBC Studios London, 16th June 1957 (Vinter)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4164-2 [65:21]

 

What was so special about Dennis Brain? Here we are, nearly fifty years after his untimely death in a car accident at the age of just thirty-six, and he truly is a legend, still the first name in all musicians’ minds when horn players are discussed. Well this BBC disc goes a long way towards answering that question – for those, that is, who aren’t already familiar with his recordings of the Mozart or Strauss concertos, for example.

He was such a complete artist; his technique was stunning almost to the point of disbelief. His tone had a creamy richness that comes through even on some of these indifferent old recordings. But it was his musicianship that put him in a class of his own amongst his fellow exponents of this most treacherous of brass instruments. The chamber pieces here testify to his ability to efface himself and become a perfect ensemble player – not something all virtuosi can do - while his phrasing was always so flexible, so unfailingly musical.

With regard to Brain’s tone, his ear and musicianship meant that he was able to employ a greater variety of sound than most players. You’ll often detect a very slight vibrato, used to sweeten an expressive or legato melodic line. But the use of vibrato in British horn playing was pretty well unheard of in his day, being something associated with the Russians, the Eastern Europeans, and – horror of horrors! – the French. As you’ll hear, however, Brain applied his vibrato with such taste and control that no true music-lover could object, and as a result other players began to follow his lead.

So he was the first of a new breed of horn players and brass players generally. This can be most easily appreciated on this disc in the Hindemith Sonata, a demanding piece, full of knotty technical problems for the horn player, and requiring a totally secure sense of rhythm through the varying metres and phrase-lengths. Though this performance bears the earliest date of those on the disc, Brain gives a masterly reading. Bless him, he even manages to make a few little slips for the reassurance of lesser mortals!

The two chamber ensemble works are no less interesting. The Beethoven quintet sometimes gets a ‘bad press’ for being a weaker piece than Mozart’s for the same combination. So it is, but the Mozart is a sublime work, and the fact that this example of early Beethoven is not on that level doesn’t render it valueless. In a fine version like this, its qualities of good-humour and inventiveness come through well. Brain takes a fairly minor role for most of the time, but the long solo in the slow movement stands out for its beauty and authority. However, the real star of these tracks is the pianist – how wonderful to have Benjamin Britten, albeit playing a composer he professed no liking for. He is the consummate chamber music pianist, guiding the ensemble discreetly yet irresistibly throughout.

The Gordon Jacob sextet is not a piece I personally warm to – it is a pale shadow of the major masterpiece for this combination of piano and wind quintet, that by Francis Poulenc. Unlike Tully Potter in the booklet notes, I find quite a number of echoes of Poulenc in Jacob’s work, but he cannot match the Frenchman’s charm and facility, and the piece makes a rather grim, unsmiling impression, well though it is undoubtedly conceived for the instruments it employs.

Gilbert Vinter’s lollipop Hunter’s Moon makes an excellent concluding item, with its breezy melodies and cunning use of stopped notes – and I had never before heard it in its full orchestral garb, so that, despite some less than immaculate orchestral playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra under Tausky, this is great fun.

The recordings are all acceptable, though they do sound their age. But I must say, the BBC engineers of the day certainly knew about balance! The Jacob presents some very tricky problems, but everything is readily audible.

As far as Brain goes - what a player, what a musician! A ‘Legend’ indeed.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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