Tuesday 18 May 2021

Legacy: A Tribute to Dennis Brain from horn player Ben Goldscheider

Legacy: A Tribute to Dennis Brain - Watkins, Arnold, Poulenc, Britten, Panufnik, Maxwell Davies; Ben Goldscheider, Huw Watkins, James Gilchrist; Three Worlds Records

Legacy: A Tribute to Dennis Brain
- Watkins, Arnold, Poulenc, Britten, Panufnik, Maxwell Davies; Ben Goldscheider, Huw Watkins, James Gilchrist; Three Worlds Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A remarkable centenary tribute to the great horn player by one of the younger generation's finest horn players, spanning music written for Brain, music written in his memory and new music created for this programme

How does a young contemporary horn player pay tribute to the memory of the great horn player Dennis Brain whose centenary is this year. Brain was notable not just for his playing but for the way he brought the instrument into the spotlight and helped develop the repertoire. This fascinating new disc, Legacy, from horn player Ben Goldscheider on Three Worlds Records takes a highly intelligent approach to commemorating Brain. Goldscheider is joined by pianist Huw Watkins and tenor James Gilchrist for a programme which includes two works by composers associated with Brain, Benjamin Britten and Malcolm Arnold, two works written in his memory by Francis Poulenc and Peter Maxwell Davies, and two new works written specially for the disc by Huw Watkins and Roxanna Panufnik.

We begin with Huw Watkins' Lament. This beging with long lyrical horn lines over piano support, very much bitter sweet but developing in intensity and finally the harmony becomes ultimately disturbing. Watkins explains in his booklet note that he wanted to use the Poulenc Elegie's combination of lyrical beauty and anger, and indeed the result is a terrific piece, terrifically played.

Huw Watkins, James Gilchrist, Ben Goldscheider during recording sessions at Henry Wood Hall
Huw Watkins, James Gilchrist, Ben Goldscheider during recording sessions at Henry Wood Hall

In complete contrast, Goldscheider follows Watkins with the Fantasy for Horn by Malcolm Arnold, who wrote his Horn Concerto No. 2 for Brain in 1957. Arnold's Fantasy for Horn was written in 1966 for the Birmingham International Wind Competition (commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra). Written for unaccompanied horn, the work is a striking exploration of what is possible on the instrument, beginning with a lively opening fanfare which is hunting horn-like yet bears the imprint of Arnold's music too. There are meditative moments, and virtuosic ones too, with Arnold compressing a lot into under five minutes, ending with some pretty vivid fast moments which are joyously pure Arnold.

The composer Francis Poulenc performed with Dennis Brain, notably when Poulenc's Sextet was performed at Wigmore Hall in 1947. Brain's death in 1957 was the catalyst for Poulenc's Elegie for horn and piano, a work which mixes Poulenc's bittersweet lyricism with violent anger, represented by the composer's brief flirtation with 12-tone music. Here the intensely spiky opening motif seems to represent an anger which keeps reasserting itself, no matter how much beauty Goldscheider and Watkins bring to Poulenc's music. The two pace the work very well, allowing a slow build as beauty gives way to intensity and spiky darkness before seeming to die away, yet still returning to that tone row. A remarkable piece, here given a stunning performance.

Britten planned his own In memoriam Dennis Brain but this never got beyond the sketch stage (it was going to be for four horns and orchestra). Here, Goldscheider and Watkins are joined by tenor James Gilchrist for Britten's Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain which was premiered in 1955 at the Wigmore Hall with Peter Pears (tenor), Dennis Brain (horn) and the composer on piano. The booklet notes include the fascinating fact that Britten and Poulenc performed Poulenc's double piano concerto together in London in 1945!

Like the Poulenc, this is a work where Britten evokes 12-tone music without ever quite going there. The horn introduces all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, and the piano and horn interludes are dark, chromatic and intense, but never quite serial. Britten avoids the challenge of combining voice, horn and piano by having the six verses of Edith Sitwell's remarkable poem set as free recitative for voice and piano, with horn and piano producing those dark interludes, and all coming together only at the moving end of the work. Gilchrist sings with remarkable clarity and lucidity, with an otherworldly sense to his fabulous mezza-voce which can still move in a trice to something sharper and darker. The words are to the fore here, hammering away at the deep emotions of the poem. 

Many performances of this work are placed in the context of Britten's unrelated other canticles, but here with the focus on Brain we get a different perspective and a powerful account of powerful work.

Roxanna Panufnik created her Sonnets without words from three existing pieces, songs setting Shakespeare but here she disposes of the words and lets the music stand on its own, saying that she has "always felt that the long, languorous vocal lines could work well as purely instrumental – especially with Ben’s beautiful and lyrical timbre." The first movement 'Mine Eye' is indeed langorous, pairing long, lyrical horn lines with a bittersweet major/minor accompaniment (like her father Roxanna Panufnik has a fondness for chords which include both major and minor thirds). The second movement 'Music to Hear' is still bitter-sweet melancholy, but with a darker more opaque edge to the harmony whilst the third movement 'Sweet love remembered' continues the dark, thoughtful mood.

Peter Maxwell Davies' Fanfare Salute to Dennis Brain dates from 2007, and was written for the 50th anniversary of Brain's death. It was premiered as part of the East Midlands Horn Festival at the University of Nottingham on 25 March 2007 with the solo version was premiered by Michael Thompson, and an ensemble version was premiered by all the players attending the Festival. Here we hear the solo version.

This is late, mellow Max, far closer to the Arnold than to the Peter Maxwell Davies of Eight Songs for a Mad King. Whilst we have hunting type echoes here to, Maxwell Davies weaves them into something both virtuosic and elegiac.

There will undoubtedly be other tributes to Dennis Brain this year, but this disc successfully draws the various threads of his life together in a programme which pays tribute without slavishly emulating. Goldscheider, Watkins and Gilchrist bring a lovely fresh ear to to the standard repertoire and in the lesser known works introduce us to music we ought to know better, along with two striking new works that we look forward to getting to know more. Highly recommended.

Legacy: a tribute to Dennis Brain

Huw Watkins - Lament (2021)
Malcolm Arnold - Fantasy (1966)
Francis Poulenc - Elegie (1957)
Benjamin Britten - Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain (1955)
Roxanna Panufnik - Sonnets without Words (2021)
Peter Maxwell-Davies - Fanfare Salute to Dennis Brain (2007)
Ben Goldscheider (horn)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Huw Watkins (piano)

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