Wolfgang Sawallisch/Dennis Brain, horn. Philharmonia Orchestra (1957)
To hear Dennis Brain play it, you would think this concerto posed no difficulties at all. The horn tone is not only secure, but full out in the extroverted sections and extremely smooth in the cantabile ones. The ease with which the concerto comes off emphasizes the connections to the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Sawallisch and the Philharmonia provide a capable accompaniment, but this work is a star vehicle and Brain is the undoubted star. This performance is legendary, even among those who don't play the horn.
Columbia Odyssey Y328889
George Szell/Myron Bloom, horn. Cleveland Orchestra (released 1974)
Bloom's tone lacks the richness of Brain's, and he plays less heroically. Nevertheless, this recording of the work boasts Szell and the Cleveland playing a composer to whom they always gave their considerable best. The performance slightly reduces the prominence of the soloist in favor of the orchestra. You hear the shifts of orchestral texture and a byplay with the soloist, which, to me, revises the standard view of Strauss' early orchestration for the better. Furthermore, not only the tuttis but even the orchestral accompaniment figures pulse with a nervous energy (in particular, the flutes in the second movement) not found in other recordings. Finally, Szell emphasizes the links not only to Mendelssohn, but to Beethoven as well, especially in the second movement (cf. a cadential figure – quarter, quarter, triplet eights, quarter – shared with the second movement of the Symphony No. 5). It's not all scholarship, however. Szell's rhythms simply crackle. Like most of Szell, this performance (with a superb Sinfonia Domestica on the other side) has not made the transfer to CD. If you see this in the used record shops, buy it. You probably won't see it again.
Rudolf Kempe/Peter Damm, horn. Dresden State Orchestra (1975)
A disappointment. Peter Damm does well, although his tone is more nasal than Brain's and he seems to hold himself back. Surprisingly, Rudolf Kempe fails to meet the standards he set elsewhere throughout his Strauss traversal. He does a professional job, of course, but the full orchestral texture lacks the clarity he commanded in the Burleske. Also, tempos tend to drag, particularly in the slow movement. Even the finale loiters. The balance of the softer parts seems fussy, rather than Kempe's usual incandescent. In the rondo's coda, he recovers, making you regret that he couldn't reach this level from the first.
Vladimir Ashenazy/Barry Tuckwell, horn. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1990)
From the opening bars, Barry Tuckwell throws down the glove to Dennis Brain, in a full-throated, heroic interpretation. Clearly, however, Tuckwell knows the piece better than Ashkenazy, who supplies a rather humdrum accompaniment, tremendously helped, I should say, by superb recorded sound. The orchestra makes very little contribution. For the first two movements, it's merely there, playing the notes. Ashkenazy, to his credit, whips up an exciting rondo. Furthermore, the disc contains almost every work Strauss wrote for the instrument including the early Introduction, Theme, and Variations, the accompanied song "Alphorn," the late Andante, and (Tuckwell terms it an "indulgence") the introduction to the final scene of Capriccio. Horn aficionados will probably want this for Tuckwell alone.
Wojciech Rajski/Eric Terwilliger, horn. Polish Chamber Philharmonic (1993)
A tremendously high-spirited, rough-and-ready interpretation. While the Polish Chamber Orchestra lacks the polish of better-known orchestras, under Rajski they play with supreme conviction in the worth of the piece. Even subsidiary figures sound out with intensity, especially at the soft dynamics. Terwilliger plays with lovely, full tone and manages almost to melt your heart in the slow movement. His horn technique lacks Tuckwell's technical assurance, but in many ways Terwilliger is more musical. In all, this is one of the most attractive interpretations on record.
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