Werther Ensemble at Conway Hall – Brahms Trios with Piano and with Horn [Opuses 8, 40 & 101]

Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, Op.101
Horn Trio in E flat, Op.40
Piano Trio No.1 in B, Op.8 [revised version]

Werther Ensemble [Simon Callaghan (piano), Jamie Campbell (violin), James Barralet (cello) & Nicolas Fleury (horn)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 December, 2013
Venue: Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1

Werther EnsembleIt is good to see that the Sunday Concerts series at Conway Hall, founded during the 1880s, is now being revitalised under the artistic direction of Simon Callaghan – whose Werther Ensemble featured here in the first of an ambitious series that is to encompass all of the chamber music by Brahms. This first instalment featured three of the composer’s trios, a medium which encompassed almost the whole of his output and such as is underlined by the earliest piece here also being one of the last by dint of a revision 35 years on: a unique instance, indeed, of Brahms not only revising long after the event but also allowing that work to stand in both its original and revised versions.

To begin near the end with the C minor Piano Trio (1886) and a piece whose expressive variety feels the greater through its very concision: other than in the later Clarinet Trio, Brahms surely never marshalled his ideas so succinctly and yet so vividly. The Werther players had the measure of its opening Allegro, with its tensile though never inflexible sonata design, and then drew a tangible obliqueness from the ensuing Presto in which the interplay between scherzo and intermezzo facets is at its subtlest. Its grazioso marking duly observed, the Andante brought a degree of repose to what is arguably the most poignant slow movement from Brahms’s later years, while the finale saw the performance through to a convincing close – not least to the degree this performance underlined those thematic links with what has gone once the ending is in sight.

Next was the Horn Trio (1865) – if not the first work in this medium, then certainly the first of lasting significance (and one which has had very few successors of comparable stature). What could easily have been a diversion in its composer’s chamber output is in fact among his most wide-ranging such pieces – and if the Werther musicians seemed just a shade tardy in its traversal of the initial Andante (a rare instance of Brahms beginning a multi-movement piece thus), they made sure to bring out the deftly achieved alternating repose and agitation. The scherzo was nimble yet by no means lightweight in its gait, while the Adagio mesto (sad) evinced a pathos uniquely its own. The finale returns to less rarefied terrain with its infectious rhythmic profile as is largely determined by the articulation and even the timbre of the horn – a test of stamina which Nicolas Fleury took effortlessly in his stride.

Dr Peter Grahame WoolfJames Barralet then re-appeared for the B major Piano Trio (1854), heard here in its 1889 revision with which the mature composer tempered many of his earlier formal and expressive audacities – yet the later version sacrifices little, if any, of the original’s innate expansiveness and emotional breadth. This account duly ensured as much with an opening Allegro (its exposition repeat observed) that unfolded in trenchant paragraphs and with keen emphasis on its Schubertian melodic caste, while the scherzo brought its impulsive and lilting ideas into seamless accord. The Adagio is comparable to (though by no means merely a ‘dry run’ for) that of the First Piano Concerto in its harnessing of a rapt introspection with starker emotions – Brahms adopting the confessional mode such he was increasingly to fight shy of once the decade was out – then the Werther musicians brought apposite undulating unease to the main themes of the finale, their expressive ambivalence only intensifying as the movement strides forth with increasing inevitability to its decisive but hardly affirmative close.

An auspicious start to this worthwhile cycle and also a fitting means of commemorating the life of Dr Peter Grahame Woolf (22 February 1927-19 August 2013), pictured right, who attended these Sunday Concerts over some 65 years. Peter was not only a medical man by profession but also a keen pianist and writer. Numerous readers of this site will have come across Peter’s reviews and articles in publications such as Music and Musicians and The Musical Times, and more recently on the websites Music on the Web (of whose ‘Seen and Heard’ sub-site he was Editor Emeritus) and Musical Pointers. His many insights across a vast range of music will be much missed. His widow Alexa sponsored this Brahms recital as part of the longest-running concert series on London’s musical calendar.

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