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Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC    BBCL 4048-2

BBC Legends - Brain (c) 2000 BBC Music


As a soloist, I only heard Dennis Brain once when he performed a Mozart horn concerto at London's Royal Albert Hall. Apart from the inspired and immaculate playing, I remember the pleasure of his orchestral colleagues, and the way it was reciprocated by Brain himself. They knew he was the finest French horn player of his generation, and there was never a doubt before he'd played a note that a fine performance was in prospect. There are stories of him at rehearsal with a car magazine positioned in front of the music on his stand, to be flicked away seconds from his next entry.

That real sense of camaraderie is clearly apparent in Beethoven's Quintet in E flat, opus 16, recorded in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 24 August 1957 by the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble. The rest of the personnel are not named in the liner booklet, but I would guess the oboist was William Sutcliffe, clarinet Frederick Thurston, and Cecil James bassoon, with Wilfrid Parry as pianist.

Later that same week Dennis Brain was killed driving back home to London.

As Gareth Morris notes: 'He joins the ensemble without any desire to dominate the scene; even in his beautiful solo passages he converses with his colleagues as they recreate the music to their mutual pleasure'. Note especially the slow movement where Parry's singing line and discrete rubato phrasing is taken up perfectly by the other players, while in the two outside movements there is a natural feeling for precision allied to jollity that must have brought forth the spontaneous applause from a packed audience.

In that same programme Brain and Parry performed Paul Dukas' Villanelle,deemed unplayable by players due to the exactitude of breathing and hazardous excursions into high regions. The encore -- Le Basque -- by Marin Marais, arranged for horn and piano is an absolute charmer.

Moving back to 16 February the same year, Dennis Brain paired with the English String Quartet {again, no personnel named) in Mozart's Quintet in E flat, K407. Unusually, it is scored for horn, violin, two violas, and cello, which makes nonsense of the artist listing here. Brain also featured in an earlier broadcast on 3 November 1956 (released on a BBC Records LP REB175) where his colleagues were the Carter Trio: Mary Carter, violin, Anatole Mines, viola, Eileen McCarthy, cello, with Eileen Grainger, 2nd viola. Beautifully scored for horn, the final movement enshrines one of those bubbling, fetching melodies that made the horn concertos so popular.

Brahms's Horn Trio in E flat, op 40, where the Adagio mesto third movement melody and the middle section of the preceding Scherzo links with the death of the composer's mother, was written during a visit to the Black Forest. Brain obviously adored the work's solemn first movement, while the hunting calls in the second and the final movements show off his enormous finesse compared to the marvellous tonal beauty in his rendering of the third. But one must equally pay tribute to his colleagues, Max Salpeter, violin, and Cyril Preedy, piano. This is the kind of playing one dreams about.

Original sound recordings maybe variable in quality, but this is of no consequence with performance standards of such high calibre.


Copyright © 9 May 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK




9 June 2021


I have just read Bill Newman's review in Record Box of a Dennis Brain CD. I am aware that it was written 20 years ago, but I thought that a comment may still be of interest.

Although Sidney (not William) Sutcliffe did on occasion substitute in the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble, the regular oboist was Leonard Brain. Cecil James was indeed the regular bassoonist. Stephen Waters was the Ensemble's regular clarinettist; since Frederick Thurston had died a few years previously his participation may confidently be declared impossible.

Best wishes,

Christopher Steward

9 June 2021

Hi Christopher,

Although, sadly, Bill Newman passed away in 2015, I'm sure that he would have welcomed your corrections to his piece. I'm very grateful too.

All good wishes,

Keith Bramich, Editor, Classical Music Daily


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