Proms Chamber Music No.3 (4 August)

Horn Trio Hommage à Brahms
Horn Trio in E flat, Op.40

David Pyatt (horn)
Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
Leon McCawley (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 August, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Seldom have two works made a more appropriate coupling than the horn trios of Brahms and Ligeti. Not only do they dominate an admittedly limited genre, but the relationship of the newer work to the older is a complex and ambivalent one.

Subtitled Hommage à Brahms, Ligeti’s Horn Trio was composed in 1982 in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the German master’s birth. As yet, there are but passing hints of the fascination with polymetric interplay and tonal ambiguity that mark out Ligeti’s groundbreaking piano Etudes. What the work does have is an imaginative approach to the possibilities of non-tempered tuning that the horn possesses in abundance – which, coupled with the textural variety of the violin and range of attack on the piano, engenders a three-way dialogue animated and unsettling. The players this afternoon took time to settle: the skewed wistfulness of the ’Andantino con tenerezza’ was a trifle muted, and the concentric rhythmic patterns of the ’Vivacissimo’ expertly if literally navigated. Yet the ’Alla marcia’ had the right peremptory feel, while the closing ’Lamento’ suffused anguish and resignation to telling effect.

If the work as a whole seems as much, if not more, a commemoration of the spirit of late Beethoven rather than ’early middle period’ Brahms, this is in keeping with the latter composer’s Horn Trio, written in 1865 and with a clean-cut Beethovenian feel in contrast to the Schubertian expansiveness of his earlier chamber works. In one sense, Brahms goes further than Ligeti in writing specifically for the natural as opposed to the valve horn, though the latter had only recently begun its bid for supremacy and the music can be played (as here) more than adequately on the modern instrument.

And the players this afternoon gave a more than satisfactory performance – as attentive to the Schumannesque rumination of the opening movement as to the rhythmic élan of the Scherzo – its overtones of La chasse contrasting with the dreaminess of the Trio. The slow movement, written in memory of the composer’s mother, has a stark emotional directness that looks forward to the Brahms of the C minor piano trio (No.3) and Trio for clarinet, cello and piano (Op.114). Without quite plumbing its depths, the present account conveyed warmth and a certain repose: qualities that set in relief the bracing, perpetuum mobile character of the finale – rounding off the work with an uninhibited vitality rare in Brahms. Both pieces are conveniently coupled on a Chandos CD – CHAN 9964 – from The Danish Horn Trio.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 10 August at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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