Strauss Hindemith Horn Concertos Dennis Brain EMI GROC 7243567782

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2002 and the recording is still available.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No 1 in E-flat major, Op 11 (1883)
Horn Concerto No 2 in E-flat major (1942)
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Horn Concerto (1949)
Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op 50 (1930)
Dennis Brain (horn)
Philharmonia Orchestra / Wolfgang Sawallisch (Strauss)
Philharmonia Orchestra / Paul Hindemith (Hindemith)
rec. 1956, Abbey Rd Studios, London (Strauss); 1956, Kingsway Hall, London (Hindemith)
Currently available as a Warner Classics download
EMI Classics ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ 7243 5 67782 [65]

Dennis Brain was already a performer of enormous celebrity when he died in a car crash late one night in the summer of 1957, while making his way back from triumphant appearances at the Edinburgh Festival. These recordings, made in the latter part of the previous year, offer abundant evidence of his exceptional gifts, and approach the status of sacred relics for modern horn players. It’s wonderful to have them for the first time in these excellent CD transfers.

Richard Strauss’s father was a distinguished horn player, and these two fine concertos come from opposite ends of his career; the first is an apprentice work, albeit a most accomplished one, from his late teens, while the second is from the flowering of his old age that included such works as the Oboe Concerto and the Four Last Songs. The Hindemith works are equally interesting; the Horn Concerto reminded me very much of the driving rhythms and exotic textures of the Symphonic Metamorphoses. I was grateful that the booklet quoted the little poem that Hindemith wrote, which relates to both the mood and rhythms of the final section of the concerto. I know at least one horn player who believed the composer wished the poem to be actually declaimed by the soloist. However, Lyndon Jenkins, the booklet author, assures us that this is not the case, and that it was simply intended as a pointer to the mood and atmosphere of the music.

The disc concludes with a recording of the Concert Music of 1930. Not a horn solo piece (though Brain is probably playing in the orchestra), but nevertheless a major masterpiece, reminiscent in many places of the visionary qualities of Mathis der Maler. It’s also a work which reminds us what a hugely influential figure Hindemith was in the years between the wars. He represented a real “third way” between the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and the serialism of Schoenberg; there is a striking fugue subject which is the progenitor of the one in the finale of Walton’s Symphony No 1, for example.

The Strauss 2nd Horn Concerto is a glorious work, and this recording shows Brain’s qualities at their very best – flawless technique, smooth yet open horn tone, and natural, supple musicianship in every phrase. The orchestration has some memorable touches, too, most strikingly the great moment when, at the climax of the finale, the horns in the orchestra join forces with the soloist for a riotous version of the main theme.

A pity that EMI have got their indexing wrong; there are actually 11 tracks on the CD, though the cover and notes think there are 13, which is quite unnecessarily confusing.

One of the greatest instrumentalists of the 20th century in some of its juiciest music – it’s a disc you can’t really afford to miss.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music