This is one should not come as a surprise: The horn-player who managed to capture the imagination of so many music lovers certainly deserves my attention as well. I obviously knew the name Dennis Brain for years, but it was not really until I started studying with Odd Ulleberg in Oslo, Norway, that I got intensely curious about the great British horn player. My respect for Odd was immense, and when he would constantly reference Dennis Brain's recordings in lessons and conversations, I realized that I needed to listen – if only to understand the points my teacher was trying to make. (I remember vividly how he talked about the crescendo Dennis Brain adds in the last movement of Strauss #1, last movement, to bring the orchestra back in after the little "throw-back" cadenza moment..I tried to replicate it, but later realized that this is not the point – even though it might be a necessary step in the learning process – rather; to learn from a master on a deeper, perhaps even subconscious level about what is possible when reaching your own interpretation.)
Quickly I made a project of seeking out every recording that was available to me – which due to the genius of the record companies lead to many "doubles"... So much has been said and written about Dennis Brain's playing, and I don't think my own observations are particularly unique: I was floored by the ease of sound production, his evenness through the range of the instrument and the boyish charm he exuded through totally fresh, unpretentious music-making.
In my mind I have always likened Dennis Brain to Mozart: They lived approximately to 36 years old, and both were sons of prominent masters in their fields and received early training by their fathers. They both seemed to master their craft in a way that totally eclipsed any of their contemporaries (and in fact would cast a shadow at least 50 years beyond their respective untimely passings). Both these men also seemed to absorb any musical impulses they were exposed to instantaneously and only rarely and momentarily allowed themselves to be shaken out of their "celestial orbits". (In Mozart's case when he was first exposed to the music of J.S. Bach, with Dennis Brain it is Strauss Second Concerto: his recording of this work is very beautiful, although not fully "digested"..)
It took me some time to fully appreciate the subtleties of Dennis Brain's art. At times my judgement gets clouded by the pure sensuousness of a particular sound, and these recording are old! I will share two epiphanies that made me realize his importance. In 1994, while still in school, I was about to perform the Britten Serenade for the first time and was having lunch with my teacher before the first rehearsal. An acquaintance (who had been my advisor briefly for an outreach concert project) stopped by our table and struck up a conversation. This person was not a performer, mainly an enthusiast and a deeply spiritual person. The Britten Serenade was mentioned and she immediately started gushing about how listening to the recording with Brain and Pears and the composer conducting was a truly magical experience. I was familiar with the recording, but hadn't really considered its particular magic. It then struck me that with all the new recordings coming out, music-lovers everywhere were still drawn to Dennis Brain's recordings – and not just horn-players. In fact it was the non-horn-players: The ones that loved the music without having this special relationship with my chosen instrument. These people listened to Dennis Brain and they would keep listening to Dennis Brain.
My second epiphany came a few years later when I was comparing Dennis Brain's Mozart recording to Alan Civil's. There is no doubt that Civil was a great horn-player, performer and musician and in many respects belonging to the same school as Dennis Brain. On the surface there are so many similarities: excellent horn players who put forth simple and pure interpretations. My wife – who is a great violinist with impeccable musical tastes – was quick in her judgement: Dennis Brain was indefinitely superior in her mind. It is what happens inside the phrases, inside the notes that is absolutely true and personally felt. The content and communication is timeless and universal.