The performances on this album are a pure pleasure. Dennis Brain is certainly one of the greatest horn players ever recorded, and one of only a handful whose tone is so distinctive -- pure, sweet, refined, and absolutely secure -- that it's easily recognizable as his own. He doesn't have the brassy power of some of the excellent hornists who've come after him, but for the repertoire he chose, his tone was close to perfection. In the Britten Serenade, in which he is joined by Peter Pears in a performance conducted by Eugene Goossens, his sensitivity and musicality are on full display. His performance of the Prologue and Epilogue, for unaccompanied natural horn (playing the unaltered pitches of the overtone series) is stunningly courageous; he makes no attempt to squeeze the pitches into an approximation of equal temperament and the effect is almost shocking. He brings the same appropriate musicality to the individual movements. The harrowing Dirge is particularly powerful, and the Hymn that follows is a model of nimble playfulness. Pears is in his best form, and whatever one thinks of his distinctive vocal quality, his interpretive skills in this repertoire are unmatched, and his coloratura is flawless. The Trio for horn, violin, and piano by Lennox Berkeley is a real charmer, lyrical and quirky; after the Brahms and Ligeti horn trios, it's probably the strongest work for this combination of instruments. Brain, violinist Manoug Parikian, and pianist Colin Horsely play it with complete finesse and vivacity. The First Brandenburg Concerto, played by Boyd Neel and his chamber orchestra, is very much of its period, the early '50s, so it doesn't have the fleetness and limberness of more historically informed performances on period instruments, but it's not at all bloated or stolid, and it's a nice showcase for Brain and the unnamed second hornist. The sound varies considerably between pieces. The Berkeley sounds like it was taken directly from an often-played LP with a fair amount of surface noise, but once you adjust expectations, it's not bad enough to ruin the performance. The Britten and Bach have a little tape hiss that's hardly noticeable, except in the quietest moments.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|Serenade, for tenor, horn & strings, Op. 31|
|Trio for horn, violin & piano, Op. 44|
|Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046|