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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Brain in the Orchestra

  • Symphony #6 in F Major "Pastorale", Op. 68
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93 *
Dennis Brain, horn
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Opus Kura OPK7016
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This is a curious disc from historical label Opus Kura. While the second installment of "Brain in the Orchestra" (Opus Kura OPK7029) actually featured some solo work from the great horn player, this disc focuses instead on his dual-membership in Karajan's Philharmonia and Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Why these particular works were chosen is beyond me; Karajan's dislike of the Sixth, coupled with Beecham's general ambivalence toward Beethoven makes this a strange program to showcase your principal horn in. To add insult to injury, neither work gives the horn much to play.

As questionable as this is on paper, the reality is a much nicer one. Despite ignoring most of the repeats – which, like Munch in Boston causes the Sixth to sound like a truncated Fantasia scene – Karajan coaxes some luminous and flowing playing from his ensemble. This reading is notably more relaxed than his later recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, and I prefer this Philharmonia account for this reason. I still feel like Karajan doesn't like the work much, since besides a lack of repeats Karajan hardly finds all the charm this work contains. Still, the woodwind playing is typically excellent (and typically acidic in tone). The strings carry great weight in what is easily the conductor's best take on the Scherzo, while the conductor actually allows the Finale to glow here. The Storm is unexpectedly intense, but Opus Kura's somewhat silly milking of the horn section – admitted in the notes – overwhelms the otherwise respectable monaural transfer.

Beecham's Eighth is even finer, if only because Beecham was hardly ever charmless, and always brought his good humor to the even-numbered symphonies. The Royal Philharmonic may lack the collective virtuosity of the Philharmonia, but the dignified strength of the ensemble is still competitive today. While not seriously contending as a "best" version, Beecham's big-hearted and surprisingly propulsive reading reminds us of what a champion of Haydn he was. Despite being recorded two years earlier (1951) than Karajan's account, if anything the sound is warmer and noticeably brighter. For 1951, it sounds terrific, and Opus Kura manages to resist milking the horns this time. The bass is very faint, but at least nothing sounds congested. The woodwinds always did magical things for Beecham, and they don't disappoint. While modern sound and scholarship works wonders in this symphony, there's still plenty to enjoy. You can get this disc in the U.S. from Albany Music Distributors, and the U.K. has its own outlet for Opus Kura. As a final bonus, the liner notes aren't terrible this time around. This is unexpectedly fun, despite my initial reservations.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman