This record showcases Dennis Brain as soloist and in various chamber music combinations; afterward, he explains and demonstrates horns of different vintage, ending with the Prologue of Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Horn, Tenor, and Strings, written for him and Peter Pears. In every capacity, his incredible instrumental mastery, flawlessly beautiful tone, natural musicality, collegial spirit, and unerring sense of style are fully displayed. Among the program's rarities, a piece by Arnold Cooke is charming, romantic, and very English; wind quintets by Ibert and Milhaud are charming, Impressionist, and very French. Beethoven's Sextet Op. 81b for two horns and strings, an early work despite the late opus number, is lovely, brilliant, and full of high spirits; a Mozart Divertimento, originally for eight winds, is delightful. (The piano part mentioned in the booklet is not audible.)
Brain's Quintet includes his brother Leonard on oboe, and flutist Gareth Morris, who also provides the liner notes and the photographs (unfortunately without identifying Brain's companions). The recording's weak spot is the Haydn Concerto, where Brain is hampered by an orchestra that sounds poor, plays out of tune and with unstylistic throbbing intensity. The high point is Schubert's "Auf dem Strom," written shortly before he died, one of his greatest songs set to one of his worst poems. Listeners who remember Pears's voice as a young man should be warned that it sounds entirely different: less light in weight and color, less otherworldly. However, the old vocal and expressive magic is fully intact and the performance, though the piano is much too soft, is riveting in its passionate urgency and heartbreaking in its yearning, resigned leave-taking, a sad reminder that we have lost these three artists, two of them very young. --Edith Eisler
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The mystery of this performance is only heightened by its surroundings. Rellstab's poetry is dull even to those who know German, and in following it to the bitter end Schubert's music (as the notes to the LP of the 1960 Marlboro performance admit) does not quite escape becoming tedious. Furthermore, most potential listeners will not be aware that the horn was in 1953 a clunky, mistake-prone instrument, of which few players risked themselves as soloists before the public.
In sum, one would not expect the general public to find any interest in a clean run-through of this yawner. And yet, Brain's performance leaves horn players agape and is surely one of the finest instrumental recordings ever.