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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Brain in the Orchestra 2

  • Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 61
  • The Nutcracker, Op. 71a (Suite)
Dennis Brain, horn
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Opus Kura OPK7029
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This is billed as Volume II of "Dennis Brain in the Orchestra", referring to his legendary tenure as Principal Horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Volume I features some famous Beethoven recordings, namely Karajan's earliest "Pastorale" and Beecham's Eighth. Neither performance strikes me as essential, but this disc is a different story. Karajan spent so many years recording Beethoven that we tend to forget how often he programmed and played Tchaikovsky. Not all of it was equally fabulous – the last of it in Vienna is actually quite bad – but these Philharmonia sessions show Karajan at his very best.

In fact, this disc is really more about Karajan than Brain, who naturally is the featured soloist in the slow movement of the Symphony #5. This he does with his customary beauty and grace, while Karajan (with whom he worked very well with as both soloist and orchestral player) provides perhaps his finest backdrop in this music. Brain's warmth and exemplary control is a delight to listen to 60 years later, and he's matched by the great strings and wind soloists of the Philharmonia. Beyond this, the program is all about Karajan, which in this case is fine by me. Karajan's London years have him operating at the absolute peak of his considerable powers. Though his later Berlin recordings (on both EMI and Deutsche Grammophon) feature better – or at least more modern – sound, none of his later Tchaikovsky recordings show as much subtlety and care for orchestral balance. Indeed, this is Karajan at his least mannered, and most natural. His later EMI recording is rather severe, while his account from the 70s is probably his best on balance. But Opus Kura really has done a wonderful job with these recordings, and those not owning (or wanting) one of the big Warner boxes will be more than satisfied.

My preferred Karajan Nutcracker Suite is on Decca Virtuoso, featuring an absolutely radiant Vienna Philharmonic. This Philharmonia version proves equally worthy, with first-desk playing to die for and far more personality than in his later Deutsche Grammophon efforts. Dennis Brain does very little to justify the disc's title here, save for leading the admittedly excellent Philharmonia horns. The woodwind playing is a touch acidic in the English tradition of the time, but the Suite is none the worse for that. While Karajan's remakes feature tidier strings and richer stereo sound, they are also increasingly homogenized and eventually (in the case of his last digital version, especially) rather dull. You can get the best of the conductor's early EMI Tchaikovsky on Warner Classics 2564-63362-0, or this single issue from Opus Kura via Albany Music Distributors. The choice is yours, but any fan of the composer should hear these uniquely compelling renditions, aided by one of the great horn players of the last century.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman