REVIEW: Boyd Neel's oft-quoted comment that Dennis Brain was the finest Mozartian soloist of his generation comes readily to mind as one listens again to his 1954 recording of the four horn concertos. Of course Walter Legge, who admired his playing enormously, gave him an estimable advantage in securing Karajan to conduct the Philharmonia in the accompaniments. So many concerto records are spoiled by ineffective partnerships, but not this one.
Again and again Karajan matches the graceful line of the solo phrasing (the Romanza of No. 3, K 7, is just one ravishing example), while in the allegros the crisply articulated, often witty comments from the Philharmonia violins are a joy—I instance the Rondo of No. 2 K 17 or the dainty grace and tight, gossamer t Is in the first movement of No. 4, K 95. The glorious tone and the richly lyrical phrasing every note is alive—from Brain himself is life-enhancing in its radiant warmth. The flowing Andante of No. 2, the lovely Romanza of No. 3, and perhaps most enchanting of all the espressivo of the Romanza of No. 4. The Rondos have been much broadcast over the years by the BBC (Michael Flanders and Donald Swan did a marvellous parody of one of them, conscious that the tune was familiar to their listeners). They are not just spirited, buoyant, infectious and smiling, although they are all of these things, but they have the kind of natural flow that Beecham gave to Mozart.
There is also much dynamic subtlety—Brain doesn't just repeat the main theme the same as the first time, but alters its level and colour. His legacy to the next generation of British horn players (and those that have followed on afterwards) was to show them that the horn—a notoriously difficult instrument—could be tamed absolutely and that it could yield a lyrical line and a range of colour to match any other solo instrument. He was snatched away from us in his prime (killed in a car accident while travelling home overnight from the Edinburgh Festival—his driving was as legendary as his playing on September 1st, 1957). He left us this supreme Mozartian testament which may be approached by others (indeed, Barry Tuckwell Alan Civil and more recently Michael Thompson have all done so) but never quite equalled, for his was uniquely inspirational music-making, with a quality something like innocence to make it the more endearing.