[ Naxos Historical / CD ]
Release Date: Tuesday 6 February 2007
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"This disc is pure joy. At the price, it is almost a crime not to snap it up."
Bargain of the Month MusicWeb May 2007
Although it is now nearly half a century since Dennis Brain died at the early age of 36 on 1 September 1957, killed at the wheel of his car while on an overnight journey home from a concert at the Edinburgh Festival, his reputation has never dimmed during the ensuing years, so much so that he has become a legend. His famous 1953 recording of the four Mozart concertos continues to be the yardstick by which all subsequent versions are measured. Broadcast and live performances continue to be discovered so that his name remains before today's public in a most positive manner.
This family was steeped in horn playing. Dennis's grandfather Alfred senior (1860-1925) was in his time a distinguished horn player, but his father Aubrey (1893-1955) became the most celebrated British exponent of the instrument. After studying with Adolf Bordsdorf at the Royal College of Music, Aubrey joined the New Symphony Orchestra as first horn in 1912. He later became a principal of the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra under Boult in 1930, remaining until his premature retirement brought about by ill-health. He continued to play until January 1953. He possessed a remarkable command of the instrument with a wonderful quality of tone displaying a refined style. His solo recordings included two Mozart concertos (K. 417 and K. 477) and the Brahms Horn Trio with Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. Aubrey's older brother Alfred junior (1885-1966) was principal horn of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for a number of years but then moved to the United States where he became first horn of the New York Symphony Orchestra in 1923, before moving to a similar post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for fourteen years. He later played in the studio orchestras of M-G-M and Twentieth Century Fox. Alfred also served as manager of the concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. He left a rare (sadly made rather too late) recording of the Haydn Concerto No. 2 in D (made in 1950) that at times illustrates his fine technique.
Dennis Brain was born in London on 17 May 1921. He was educated at St Paul's School in Hammersmith where he studied piano and organ. Although his father allowed his young son to play a few notes on Saturday mornings as a treat, he was adamant that students should not take up the instrument in a serious manner until they had reached their teenage years when the teeth and the mouth embouchure were fully developed. At the age of sixteen he left school having won a scholarship in open competition, which enabled him to go to the Royal Academy of Music. Dennis studied the piano with Max Pirani and organ with G. D. Cunningham in addition to the horn with his father. Such was his progress that he made his professional début alongside his father in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 as a member of the Busch Chamber Orchestra on 6 October 1938. The event caused much interest with favourable press comment. The following month he took part in his first recording session with the same orchestra accompanying Rudolf Serkin in Mozart's Piano Concerto K. 449. It was another recording session in February 1939 when again he played alongside his father in Mozart's Divertimento in D K. 334for two horns and string quartet with the distinguished Léner Quartet, that brought his playing to the attention of the producer Walter Legge (1906-1979) who would play a critical rôle during the years 1945-57.
With the outbreak of World War II Dennis Brain joined the Central Band of the Royal Air Force which was based at Uxbridge. Later the RAF Symphony Orchestra was formed under Wing Commander R. P. O'Donnell, a group which would in time contain many of the finest of the post-war orchestral players and soloists. Fortunately Brain was able to take part in a variety of ad hoc orchestras, for example, the London Wind Players under Harry Blech, the orchestra which played at Myra Hess's National Gallery concerts, the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as appearing as a soloist throughout Britain and making a number of recordings. He took part in the first performance of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings in October 1943, a work he would subsequently record twice commercially. He took part in a number of sessions with the National Symphony Orchestra for the Decca Record Company who were recording experimentally with what became later known as the FFRR system.
At the end of 1944 the Central Band and the Symphony Orchestra of the RAF made a two week 'good will' American tour during which time Brain met with his uncle Alfred. It was during this tour that he received an offer from conductor Eugene Ormandy to join the Philadelphia Orchestra.
With the end of World War II and his return to civilian life Dennis Brain found himself back in the swim of musical life in Britain. Walter Legge engaged him as first horn of his newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra, and the following year Beecham, when founding his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, gave him a similar position. He continued to work for both orchestras until April 1954, before playing almost exclusively with the Philharmonia in the last three years of his life. Dennis himself formed his own wind quintet in 1946 and was to be found the length and breadth of Britain in recitals or concerto engagements. He played in Karl Haas's London Baroque Ensemble in concert and in a wide variety of recordings, notably the first-ever of Richard Strauss's late period Symphony for wind instruments, and the two Mozart Wind Serenades K. 375and K. 388. His contribution to the vast number of recordings made by both the Philharmonia and the RPO during the years 1946-1957 was enormous and the conductors under whom he played included virtually all the great names of the time.
No less significantly, Brain's reputation and achievements resulted in an expansion of new works. These covered concerti by Arnold, York Bowen, Fricker, Hindemith, Jacob and Lutyens, as well as Britten's Serenade and the Second Canticle, both for tenor and horn. Such was the admiration for Brain's playing that Poulenc wrote an Elégie as a posthumous tribute.
The Allegro of K. 412, completed by a Rondo K. 514 (386b), emanates from Vienna in 1791. For many years it was deemed as the composer's first venture into a horn concerto. This came about as a result of a misreading of the year 1797 for 1787. It was in fact the fourth to be composed. Mozart drafted both movements but the composer changed some of the solo writing when completing his draft. The Rondo was completed by Süssmayr in a version dated 6 April 1792. His score differs from the Mozart version with changed string writing and the deletion of low notes for the horn, as well as the introduction of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (normally sung at the Good Friday service) which resulted in an extension of the movement by six bars. Süssmayr misread Mozart's draft and omitted the two bassoons in this movement. The work is scored for two oboes, two bassoons and strings.
K. 417was composed in Vienna and completed on 27 May 1783 according to the autograph score. This was the first concerto which was composed for the soloist Joseph Leutgeb. The first page of Mozart's score bears an inscription "Wolfgang Amadé Mozart has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool, in Vienna on 27 May 1783". The opening movement is highly attractive and very demanding for the soloist. The second is song-like in three verses, followed by a witty, happy and cheeky rondo in hunting manner.
K. 447was composed in Vienna and is thought to date from 1787. It is possibly the most mature of the four. The orchestral writing is both richer and darker with the use of clarinets and bassoons. The solo part in the slow movement bears a striking similarity to a 1795 Romance for horn and string quartet by Michael Haydn. The finale is a lively gallop, full of hunting calls and the chase and its hazards.
K. 495was composed in Vienna and completed on 26 June 1786. This is Mozart's second concerto for Leutgeb for whom Mozart wrote his autograph score in four different colours of ink: it was not a joke but an indication for the soloist in the matter of dynamics and colouristic inflection. Unusually the first movement exists in three different versions, the one here being the standard 1802 published edition. This is the most demanding of these concertos with a grand first movement, contrasted with a gentle slower and restrained one which becomes more agitated and passionate. The finale is one of Mozart's best, a hunting rondo in wonderfully unbuttoned manner.
The Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano in E flat, K. 452, was composed in Vienna before 21 March 1784 when it was to have been given its first performance in the Burgtheater on that date. However this event was postponed until 1 April. Mozart was decidedly happy with the finished work, commenting to his father Leopold: "I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed". Beginning with a slow introduction, the opening movement then moves into a vibrant Allegro. There is a contrasting slow movement, before the work concludes with a lively Allegretto.
The concertos were written for the Austrian horn player Joseph Leutgeb (c.1745-1811). He hailed from Salzburg and became first horn in the Salzburg court orchestra in 1770. He later visited Paris before settling in Vienna where he also ran a cheesemonger's shop. He remained on friendly terms with Mozart until the latter's death in 1791 and retired from playing the following year. Leutgeb had adopted and expanded the revolutionary new technique of hand-stopping that entailed the use of inserting the right hand into the bell of the instrument to alter and increase the number of notes then available thereby making the horn a properly melodic instrument.
In the case of these Mozart concertos, Dennis Brain was the first soloist to record all four, although he had earlier recorded Nos. 2 and 4. It is interesting to place the recording of these Mozart concertos in relation to Brain's other work at the time. He had played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Beecham on the 1 and 4 November in London, followed by two days to record concertos No. 1 to 3 on the 11th and 12th, another RPO concert on the 15th. There were then two days of sessions with Karajan and the Philharmonia to record the Mozart Sinfonia concertante K. 297bon the 17th and 18th, followed by a performance of K. 495under Paul Sacher and the RPO on the evening of 18th. Then came a concert with Karajan on the 20th November, another concerto with the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli in Bradford on the 21st, followed by a BBC live broadcast of Delius's opera Irmelin on the 22nd, and a recording of the fourth Mozart Concerto under Karajan on the 23rd. This was succeeded by a recording of the Gounod Petite symphonie for Karl Haas and the London Baroque Ensemble on the 24th, rounded off by his second recording of Britten's Serenade with Peter Pears but conducted by Eugene Goossens, between the 25th and 27th.
What was so special about Brain's playing? He displayed an astonishing mastery of the whole range of the instrument. He also played with remarkable delicacy of execution in rapid staccato passages, allied to innate subtlety of phrasing. Note the wit and crispness of the Rondo to K. 417, the gossamer gleam and effortlessness of the first movement of K. 495, the glowing warmth of the Romanza of K. 447swiftly followed by the tongue in cheek nature of the ensuing Rondo. In all four works there is a smile, buoyancy, elegance and an infectious wit. The orchestra and Karajan's accompaniment may seem rather plush and display a somewhat romantic style to today's ears but that was deemed essentially Mozartian in manner.
Originally Dennis Brain played on a French Raoux-Millereau instrument, a twin of his father's, but in 1951 he changed to a German Alexander model in order to achieve a more robust sound. It is this instrument that Brain used in the Mozart concertos. As a person he was humble, somewhat shy, modest of his remarkable talents, and with a boyish sense of humour: who else would have played part of a Leopold Mozart concerto at a Hoffnung Festival concerto on a garden hosepipe? At the time of his death he had taken up conducting, and it is fascinating to surmise what he might have achieved.
Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major, K. 412
Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat major, K. 417
Horn Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, K. 447
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495
Piano and Wind Quintet in E flat major, K. 452