The name Dennis Brain commands equal respect among soloists and orchestral players, and with good reason. Arguably one of the finest horn players of all time, Brain was also an integral part of English orchestral brass sections. A sensitive and congenial chamber musician, one wonders what could have been if he hadn't died in a car crash in 1957. EMI/Warner holds the bulk of his studio work, while most of what remains sporadically available from Decca and the BBC. It is neither a large nor particularly well-recorded legacy. By general consensus, the concertos with Karajan are the most famous, followed by the Strauss and Hindemith once found (along with the Mozart) on "Great Recordings of the Century". From there, we have a bunch of odd excerpts, chamber works, and incidental pieces. Why EMI couldn't box up the truly complete Dennis Brain is beyond me, since it wouldn't have taken up much more space.
That said, like most of the "Icon" series, this box is generally well-chosen and is fully representative of the various roles Brain played during his career. Disc one sounds mostly terrible: the concertos are especially taxing on the ears. But the horn playing is to die for. I don't really believe these early versions outclass the later Philharmonia sessions in any way, but other critics insist that Brain played the Mozart better under other batons than he did with Karajan. Those readings – which dominate disc two – are to my ears Karajan's best-ever Mozart recordings and remain a cornerstone of collections around the world. The rest of disc one is short fillers. Gerald Moore is his usual professional self, and the Philharmonia under various conductors sounds fine.
Aside from the classic Karajan collaborations, disc two is rounded out by a lovely reading of Mozart's E Flat Quintet. Brain also recorded this piece with Walter Gieseking, and there's honestly no reason that version isn't here. Colin Horsley has nothing to fear from his more famous colleague, and collectors will be happy to have this recording back in print. The remastering of this disc dates from 1997, in decent enough transfers. Still, the concertos were just tidied up a few years ago for the latest giant Karajan project, and since the rest of the box was remastered in 2003 and 2007, I really wish these important readings had gotten the same treatment.
Disc three features the Strauss Concertos under Sawallisch and the Hindemith under the composer's baton. The latter remains fairly definitive, while only Barry Tuckwell really comes close to Brain in the Strauss. The 2003 clean-up of the sound for the "Great Recordings" line still does the job nicely, and bests previous EMI issues. Most older collectors will have most of these items already, but for students of the horn and fans of historical issues, this remains an indispensable legacy.
Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman