, May 2007
Recently, I reviewed Claire Briggs' generally routine take on Mozart's 'famous four'. There is nothing of the routine whatsoever about Brain's famous recordings. I lived with the LP of these concertos for many years: ASD1140 was the particular incarnation, although they existed originally on a Columbia 33CX. Malcolm Walker, who writes the perceptive notes for the current issue, avers that this 1953 version of the concerto, “continues to be the yardstick by which all subsequent versions are measured”. How right he is. There is a freshness of spirit here that makes one wonder if there are not parallels to be made between Brain and Mozart himself – both died young, leaving a legacy that is at once as individual as it is unassailable. Brain's greatest achievement was that he plays as if the horn is not a difficult instrument. It is simply the medium through which he interprets this music; and these interpretations are of the highest possible standard.
Karajan's accompaniment is made of pure gold. The Philharmonia plays like a group of descended gods for him, and there is none of the streamlined phrasings of the later years. Yet it is to Brain that the ear always returns, and always gratefully. Not a single phrase has even the slightest ungainly bump; tonguing is light yet defined; slow movements possess the most silken legato. It is well nigh impossible to select isolated moments, for this is as near to flawless horn playing as we can expect this side of the veil.
Mark Obert-Thorn's restoration is of the highest possible standard. If there is still a little distancing of the orchestra's wind instruments, this remains the clearest sound I have heard for these accounts. Magnificent.
The Briggs disc added a Haydn Trumpet Concerto that actually overshadowed her own contribution. No-one could surely ever overshadow Brain in musicianship, and so it is that Walter Gieseking emerges more as Brain's complement. Despite the later recording date by two years, the sound of the Quintet is a little less focused. It is biased towards Gieseking's piano. Yet there is a huge amount of delight to be had here as - so it sounds - a group of friends make the most heavenly chamber music, just for us, the listeners at home. Dialogues are a joy, both between piano and ensemble and within the wind ensemble itself. The slow movement flows with preternaturally perfect ease. Just listen to Brain's solo at 2:53ff – how many horn players today can deliver such delicious grace?
This disc is pure joy. At the price, it is almost a crime not to snap it up.