It seems at first more than slightly absurd that this disc should be issued not with the customary title "Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Perform Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Fifth Symphony," but rather with the unusual title Brain in the Orchestra. And yet there are prominent passages in these performances that do suggest the title may be appropriate, that Dennis Brain, the great English horn player who died at 36 while driving back down to London after the Edinburgh Festival, is in fact the musical star of these performances. If one listened just to Brain's performance of the famous horn solo that opens the Fifth's Andante cantabile, listened just to his seamless legato, his lyrical phrasing, and his effortless control of dynamics and articulation, listened just to him not so much play as sing the melody thereby transforming it from a horn solo into a baritone vocalise, one might suppose the title entirely justified.
But if one listened through the entire disc, that title may come to seem unfair to the rest of the players involved. With the Philharmonia, EMI created what was certainly the greatest studio orchestra in London at the time, and as these performances show, it has surely proven to be the greatest studio orchestra of all time. Every soloist here is first-rate -- the clarinetist as lovely as the flutist and the bassoonist as beautiful as the harpist -- and the unified ensemble is smooth and sleek while the combined tone is rich and deep. And if one listened through the entire disc, that title may likewise come to seem unfair to the conductor. Herbert von Karajan, clearly no slouch on the podium, leads vital, virile, and virtuoso performances of Tchaikovsky's music that stand comparison with the finest of his many later recordings of the same pieces. But if one listens just to Brain play the Andante cantabile or through the entire disc, one will invariably be impressed by the sound. EMI's original monaural recordings from 1952 and 1953 are a bit distant, but clean and clear, and Opus Kura's remastered recording is a bit dim, but honest and true.