Audio Record Review, October 1969
Mr. Martin Prowse kindly gave me his permission to republish this article on my web site. I think it is a pioneering work about Dennis Brain's recordings and still helpful for investigators of them.
The world of 'classical' music has many idols, whose creative genious has been underlined by sudden, tragic and premature death. Dennis Brain is now a legend and it is time to re-evaluate his real contribution to record music
To appreciate Dennis Brain's contribution to the record catalogue over years one must look beyond the familiar items - those towering performances of the four Mozart concertos, the Richard Strauss and Hindemith concertos, the Beethoven horn sonata and the Benjamin Britten Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the less familiar examples of his art, most of which, alas, have since been deleted from the catalogue. It is hoped, therefore, that those who value the recordings mentioned above may find that they possess, among their early LPs and 78rpm records, yet more evidence of Dennis Brain's qualities, both as a soloist and as an orchestral player.
For it is a fact that from the war-time days of the National Symphony Orchestra, through the pre-Long Play and early Long Play eras of the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, up to the first stereophonic recordings by the Philharmonia Orchestra, one can trace Dennis Brain, the orchestral player and leader of exceptionally fine horn sections. One can hear him, too, in many smaller-scale masterpieces recorded by the London Baroque Ensemble and the London Mozart Players, not forgetting the recordings of his own Wind Ensemble.
It would be impossible to enumerate all those of instances of a rapid staccato passage, a glacially smooth slur, a confident legato phrase or even a long held note that appears from nowhere and merges again with the surrounding orchestral texture. Yet these are features which betray Dennis Brain's instinctive awareness of the role of the horn in relation to the other sections of the orchestra. In his hands a solo like that in the Andante of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony would emerge, grow, develop and discreetly withdraw again, showing the sensitiveness of the artist in placing a musical phrase in context, not demanding undivided attention by brash self-advertisement. Listen, too, to the way the horn follows the clarinet at the beginning of the 'Shepherds' Hymn' in Beethoven's Pastral Symphony. Here the octave interval is so controlled as to make the change almost imperceptible. To talk of a 'leap' or 'jump' in this case would be to misunderstand Dennis Brain's ability to treat a phrase as an organic growth, where the concept of vertical intervals is replaced by that of horizontal developement.
But the different aspects of Brain's mastery of the instrument cannot be examined in a vacuum. He was born into a tradition of horn playing in the family, for his father, uncle and grandfather all played the horn with great success. It is interesting to speculate on the relative importance of heredity and environment, for Dennis Brain's playing was influenced by the family gift. If one listens to his father Aubrey Brain on recordings made as long ago as 1926, one realises that much of the father still lived on the sun thirty years later. Though the instrument was no longer the narrow-bore French horn, the purity of tone was not lost. Dennis's tone was certainly broader and more velvety, but he retained his father's clarity, avoiding the tubbiness of much modern horn sound.
Compare Aubrey and Dennis playing the Nocturne from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. Though in Dennis's version with Kletzki the pace is slower and more dream-like, the moulding of the phrases, the purity of the top notes and the dying away in the sixteenth bar bear the same hall-mark. In the performances of Mozart's concerto No.2, K417 (there are two by Dennis and one by Aubrey on a 1927 Edison Bell recording) one can hear the same slight lingering on the first note of the triplets in bars 117 and 118 of the Rondo, giving a shape that seems inevitable, but rarely is. This is also true of the two versions of Till Eulenspiegel where Aubrey and Dennis hold momentarily on the top A of the final arpeggio of the opening solo.
1934 and 1936 saw the issue of the Brahms Horn trio and Bach's Brandenburg concerto No.1, and both works confirm the impression that Aubrey Brain had a rare beauty of sound and innate sense of style, both well served by a fine technique. This beauty is particularly noticeable, too, in his performance of Schubert's Octet, and in the recording made by the Queen's Hall Orchestra of Sir Henry Wood's arrangement 'The Song of the Rhine Daughters'. For some, last year's stereophonic recordings may already be out of date, but for others, a sound like that of Aubrey Brain can span more than forty years and still catch me the breath.
We are fortunate that for at least the last four years of Dennis Brain's life, the LP record was well-established and also that the post-war 78rpm records were generally of a very high standard (as shown by frequent transfers on to LP in early Fifties). As an orchestral player Brain's command of the instrument included a resonance and brittleness that seemed to communicate itself to the rest of the section and which some people might be surprised to hear. The sound of the Philharmonia horn section in perfect unison is best illustrated by the last seventeen bars of the first movement of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, marked 'so dark als möglich' (as loud as possible)! Exciting too is the opening of the Allegro con Brio section of 'Abscheulicher!' from Beethoven's opera Fidelio. The precision of articulation here is matched in the Presto section at the end of Klemperer's recording of the Eroica Symphony. Whenever a bravura passage is intended to rise clearly above the general harmonies, Dennis Brain leaves the listener in no doubt. After the restatement of the initial theme in Till Eulenspiegel by the first and then the third horn, the horns rise progressively, from figure 29, on a phrase based on that theme to a triumphant climax on the top C for first and third together. The result is one of infectious exuberance. The 'whoops' in the Prelude to Der Rosenkavalier create the same atomosphere, and that delightful resurrection by Sir Thomas Beecham of Méhul's La Chasse de Jeune Henri shows the RPO horn section in full cry, giving tongue with gay abandan-an exciting and authentic sound.
For examples of rapidity and lightness of articulation in staccato passages, the Scherzo of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony shows exceptional coordination, while the 'chattering' of the horns in the Scherzo of Borodin's Second Symphony shows Dennis Brain's nimbleness in repeated groups of semiquavers. Utterly convincing as well are the feather-light triplets and two-octave arpeggio rising to a top C at the end of Dukas' Villanelle for horn and piano. This extraordinary agility makes the rapid arpeggios in Rossini's overture La Cambiale di Matrimonio seem like child's play, and the sudden piano when the solo is repeated seems to follow naturally, though it is by no means as easy as it sounds. The early recordings of Strauss' first concerto and of Britten's Serenade both reveal this agility, though in the LP version of the Serenade, Brain's performance of the Hymn has become even more light-footed.
From the preceding examples it should be clear that speed alone is not necessarily satisfying to the ear. The player must at the same time convey that every note is fully under control. The ascending scales of one and a half octaves in the first movement of Beethoven's Sextet, Op.81b, convey this admirably; those at the end of the first movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Wind are even more breath-taking. Most magical of all, however, is a bar that looks innocuous when compared to these scales. It occurs in Dvorák's Serenade in D minor, opus 44. The trio section of the Minuet is a very fast moving presto for all the instruments, and near the end the bassoon, horn and clarinet each has an ascending scale of quavers. Dennis Brain plays his bar (bar 184) with unsurpassable aplomb-and artistry, for he shades it away at the end, thus preserving intact the musical whole.
Exposure in the higher reaches of the instrument held no terrors for him and he would make notes in the upper part of the register materialise out of thin air and leave them as suddenly, yet they would have an unvarying accuracy of intonation and fullness of sound. This is demonstrated by the trio in Beecham's 1949 recording of Haydn's Symphony No.40, and by the exquisite balance in Mozart's Divertimento No.15, K287. Even rarer than these two superlative performances (where both orchestras rise magnificently to the occasion), are the two Arias by Handel for 2 horns, 2 oboes and bassoon, which show a perfect blend, despite the formidable demands made on the principal horn. Brain accomplishes these tricky semiquaver figures with mocking ease and sustained brilliance. Even when confronted-in a live performance-with the highest obbligato horn part ever written he does not flinch. Haydn's trio 'Pietá di me', of which performances before the 1956 BBC broadcast are unknown, presents a horn part of hair-raising difficulty, for it rises to the 24th harmonic on the E flat horn (the G an octave above the treble stave). Yet if, once or twice, a top not does not sound as it should, one barely notices, for Dennis Brain invests even such an intractable part with his own warmth, and makes it sing.
Brain's serenity in terms of orchestral playing is typified by three works which open with themes of haunting beauty. They are Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, Sibelius' Fifth Symphony and Delius' Appalachia In each case the call by the first horn, slow, expressive and romantic, contains the essence of Dennis Brain's magic, distilled in a few notes. Swelling from nowhere the notes evoke space and calm.
It has already been shown how complete was Brain's mastery of the whole dynamic range of the horn, from bravura fortissimo to lyrical piano, but were one to choose the aspect most characteristic of his art one could do no better than give examples of his legato playing, and thereby emphasise the gulf between a merely correct rendering and a musical, poetic one. One can see this, for example, in his performance of the solo in the Andante of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, or in the Quoniam from Bach's B minor Mass. In a legato melody like that of Intermezzo to Kodaly's Hary Janos, or the Andante in Borodin's Second Symphony, or Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte we hear Brain's voice speaking with an unmistakeable eloquence. This eloquence was often combined with a brilliance of execution which distinguishes the Prelude to Act II of Strauss' Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.
Brain's qualities were still in evidence when he was accompanying a singer, but there was never any tension between the solo horn line and the voice, for the way he wove his part in to the texture of the aria showed a complete understanding of the composer's requirements. Thus the consummate tact of the accompanying horns in 'Abscheulicher!' is paralleled by the grace and delicacy in Fiordiligi's aria 'Per pietà' in Act II of Cosi Fan Tutte. Similarly in the aria 'Ein Schönes war ...' at figure 33 in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos Brain plays with a superb richness of sound which at no point becomes too insistent. Later on, in 'Es gibt ein Reich' he plays the accompanying melody with magical empathy.
The works mentioned in this article represent only a small proportion of those records issued (and mostly deleted), which force one to believe the evidence of one's ears, proving beyond doubt the fact of Dennis Brain's genius. If I had to choose two examples only of his unique art, they would be works not yet mentioned and, what is shameful, twelve years after his death, not yet issued: Le Basque by Marais, played as an encore at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival (and the last item Brain played as a soloist), and the broadcast of Schubert's 'Auf dem Strom' with Richard Lewis, Dennis Brain and Ernest Lush. The dance by Marais is an effervescent affirmation of Dennis's mastery of technical problems, a radiant monologue delivered to a delighted audience who naturally could only see the fun, not imminent poignancy of the event. The Schubert song has a charm unmatched by any other performance of the work. The way in which Dennis Brain dwells momentarily on the first of the four rising semiquavers in bars 12 and 15 is an unmistakeable feature of the Brain artistry; and one could go on.... To hear this interpretation is to realize the extent of our loss-to think of the works still held unissued for more than a decade in the BBC archives is to realize the extent of our deprivation.
On giving the first performance of the Mozart fragment in E in a BBC talk on the horn in 1955, Dennis Brain said, 'And there, alas, the manuscript stops....' Let us hope that the knowledge of Dennis Brain's art will not remain fragmentary and incomplete much longer.
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