Wolfgang Sawallisch/Dennis Brain, horn. Philharmonia Orchestra (1957)
I've never quite figured out why this concerto should pose so many problems to its interpreters. Written in the familiar idiom of the mature Strauss, it provides many opportunities for chamber-like byplay within the ensemble. The level of its musical inspiration soars above its youthful, genial predecessor. It should occasion great music-making, but it hasn't met up with such often. Brain understands the difference between the two horn concerti. In the first, he's the young hero, center stage. Here, he must become more of a team player – a wise man among wise counselors. Sawallisch gives Brain a team worthy to back him up. Sawallisch inflates nothing, but finds the emotional temperature of each movement: a grazioso first, a noble second, and a delicate and joyful third. This results in music of an almost Brahmsian glow. Stereo would have been nice, to distinguish the musical strands even further, but even so this is playing of great suavity and true sentiment. The recording is close to forty years old and has not been bettered.
Rudolf Kempe/Peter Damm, horn. Dresden State Orchestra (1975)
Peter Damm plays with a smooth tone but seems to have very little idea how the music should go, particularly in the first movement – pretty much a write-off. Kempe accompanies well, but throws it away on the soloist. However, although not as mellow as with Sawallisch and the Philharmonia, the concerto starts to live in the extended orchestral introduction of the second movement. As with the first concerto from the same forces, the best movement is the last, due mainly to at least some interplay between the soloist and the ensemble. Too little, too late.
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Barry Tuckwell, horn. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1990)
For someone who's recorded a lot of Strauss, Ashkenazy has almost no feel for the idiom. He insists on treating this most intimate of concerti as a Tchaikovsky for the horn. Furthermore, the Royal Philharmonic, while professional, puts out a heavy-footed, choppy line, which I can only ascribe to Ashkenazy's direction. In this concerto, a great virtuoso doesn't count for everything, since Strauss, in his late period, became interested in the orchestra as expanded chamber group. The music demands that the players listen and react to one another. Ashkenazy, unfortunately, leads a band.
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