Although Dennis Brain died at a tragically young age – 36, killed in a car crash – he casts a long shadow over the Philharmonia Orchestra’s horn section. Appointed Principal Horn of Walter Legge’s newly formed orchestra, currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, Brain was already a star of the horn playing world. Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings stands out from the many works composed for him. It is a work still full of peril for horn soloists, as Richard Watkins tells me ahead of a celebration of the Philharmonia’s horn tradition – a hornucopia, if you will – on 16th January, which also includes the world premiere of a new concerto by Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Dennis Brain
© Philharmonia Orchestra

Watkins was the Philharmonia’s Principal Horn from 1985 to 1996. Like many of his colleagues, he grew up listening to Brain’s recordings, particularly the famous LP of the four Mozart concertos, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. “Brain always has that incredible hallmark that if you turn on the radio in the middle of a recording, you immediately recognise his horn sound,” he tells me.

What made it such a distinctive sound? “Dennis had an incredible purity of sound. It was quite lightweight in terms of what you hear today and the instrument he was playing on was actually quite small, an old Raoux piston-valve horn. He used to get stick from some of his colleagues, so he eventually changed to a slightly bigger bore German Alexander horn but, in terms of today’s equivalents, it’s still considered a bit of a peashooter!” Watkins tells me how he’d played it at the Royal Academy a few days earlier. “You wouldn’t really play it professionally, partly because of the damage it received [in the car crash], but it was very much a lightweight sound compared to what you’d hear today.

Richard Watkins
© Philharmonia Orchestra
“People say instruments make a huge difference, but you really make your own sound and I think that sound evolves from listening to other players. I certainly grew up with the Philharmonia tradition – my hero was Michael Thompson [Watkins’ immediate predecessor as Principal] – but other players in that tradition include Alan Civil, who took over when Dennis was killed, Nigel Black [current principal], Katy Woolley – all fabulous players – but they’re all different to Dennis Brain.”

I suggest, there’s no point in imitation. “You couldn’t,” Watkins responds. “You’d end up with not a carbon copy, but a pale imitation. I was talking to Kira Doherty [second horn] and we were discussing whether there’s such a thing as a ‘Philharmonia Sound’. A lot of people can be rather cynical and say it’s a bit of a myth and that all London orchestras sound the same. But I do think that the Philharmonia still goes back to that German-Austrian Romantic tradition of Klemperer, Karajan, Strauss and Toscanini. When I hear them play a Brahms symphony, there’s still something about the Philharmonia sound that seems to be so natural. I suppose it’s just passed through generations.”

The technical difficulties in the Serenade are still challenging. “At the time, it was considered unplayable. The harmonics caused a lot of controversy; he composed the Prologue and the Epilogue to employ the instrument’s natural harmonics and people mistook it – and they still do today – for the horn player sounding out of tune! Britten always corrected reviews which insinuated that Mr Brain wasn’t having a great day!

“These movements give the piece an ethereal quality. When I first played it, I was fortunate enough to work with Peter Pears – not while he was still singing, but when he was conducting – and he was utterly charming. I asked him about the Prologue and he asked me to imagine I was standing on the moon, so it gives it that nocturnal quality.

Richard Watkins on Orkney
© Clive Barda

“The Hymn is incredibly virtuosic and nimble and the Elegy demands incredible control and you have this high F with the semitone shift right at the top of your range. But it’s an incredibly rewarding piece to play. I love the serenity of the Sonnet – which is the movement I’m not playing in, but it would be one of my Desert Island Discs… without the worry of creeping off-stage, trying to find the right place to play the Epilogue! And that semitone shift in the Elegy – it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? – but it’s so powerful. Britten’s captured every aspect of the instrument, every colour is nailed, it’s the complete piece for the horn.”

Watkins has played – and recorded – the Serenade with Allan Clayton (January’s tenor) before. “I like there to be interaction, particularly in the Nocturne when there’s ‘Blow, bugle, blow’ and the horn echoes its answer. Allan and I stood together in the body of the strings in performance. I was fortunate in Britten’s centenary year to play the Serenade a number of times. Everyone asks me who was the best tenor and I’m not trying to dodge the bullet, as they were all great, but I do love Allan’s voice. I love the way he really goes for it. He’s always on the edge, but always on the right side of the edge.”

For the Philharmonia’s 75th anniversary, the orchestra has commissioned a new horn concerto from Mark-Anthony Turnage entitled Towards Alba. Watkins has known the composer for a long time, mostly through his work with the Nash Ensemble.

“The catalyst was that, a few years ago, Mark wrote a Cello Concerto for Paul Watkins (no relation) and one movement was a soliloquy for cello and solo horn. I was recording a disc for NMC at this time, so I asked Mark if we could record this movement and after that he said he’d like to write something for me. Unbeknown to me, he actually wrote quite a lot of it straight away. He’d had this seed in his mind and he just went for it. He doesn’t wait for commissions or deadlines to loom!”

Although there is no sung or spoken text, each movement of Turnage’s concerto is inspired by poetry. “It’s a good companion piece for the Britten because instead of writing to nocturnal poetry, Mark’s piece is all about dawn. The melancholy second movement – very dreamy, highlighting the lyrical side of the horn – is based on Philip Larkin’s Aubade, while John Donne’s Rising Sun is more upbeat with jazzy elements for the third movement. The first movement seems quite punchy; vigorous writing, quite dramatic.

Richard Watkins as soloist with the Philharmonia conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Camilla Greenwell

Although Watkins didn’t have any direct input on the composition, he didn’t want a concerto that was impossible to play, but one that stood a chance of entering the standard repertoire. “Mark told me that one of the pieces he was inspired by was Oliver Knussen’s and I certainly think Olly’s concerto is wonderful and is one of the pieces all music students will be practising in fifty years' time.”

It’s often forgotten that the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was himself a horn player. “His teacher was the legendary Holger Fransman – the Godfather of the Finnish Horn – and so he’s part of a great Finnish horn tradition,” Watkins tells me. “As a composer, he’s written for horn, but he’s never written for me. That would be the icing on the cake!”

Salonen has put together a horntastic programme. As well as the Britten and Turnage, the Philharmonia horns will get a great workout in the overture to Der Freischütz and Strauss’ rowdy romp Till Eulenspiegel. “This concert is great for horn aficionados but I have to say that people who don’t play the horn are very welcome too!” laughs Watkins. “It has the feel of being a great celebration! I shall listen to the performance of Till Eulenspiegel with a glass of something refreshing in my hand!”

Click here to find out more about the “Horn Calls” concert.

This article was sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra.