Horn Trios at Kings Place

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By Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 12th February 2014

Endymion presents a poignant and varied programme

A concert boasting both Brahms and Ligeti’s horn trios is an all-too-rare occurrence. These two masterpieces stand as lonely miracles in chamber music history, rather as Schubert’s Trout does for its particular instrumental combination. Endymion’s Krysia Osostowicz, pianist Michael Dussek and horn-player Stephen Stirling were performing them as part of Endymion’s 35th birthday celebrations and Chamber Classics Unwrapped at Kings Place.

At first, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 seemed an unwelcome guest at such a feast, until the subtle threads that linked all three pieces became clear. It was Ligeti who described the influence of Brahms on his own trio as ‘perhaps only a certain smilingly conservative comportment – with distinct ironic distance,’  a phrase with keen resonance in Beethoven’s final sonata, which is remarkably sunny and well-behaved after the storm of its predecessor, the Kreutzer. Dussek and Osostowicz delivered an earthy, cheerful performance of this consoling work, giving due weight to its lavishly lyrical Adagio espressivo.

That ‘certain smile’ Ligeti recalls in Brahms is actually hard to detect in his trio, which veers between elegiac dream and comic frenzy. Osostowicz highlighted a more concrete link between all three works in her lucid introduction to the Ligeti, playing their shared motif, associated with the horn, of falling third, fifth and sixth intervals. Stirling explained the techniques required of him during the trio, though he hardly needed to forewarn us of ‘uncorrected’ unstopped notes sounding out of tune since Ligeti’s alchemy is utterly convincing. The first movement had a still poignancy, while the groovy, polymetric scherzo proved a furious tour de force. Close your eyes and you could be facing an orchestra such is the pitch range from driving piano and high violin ostinati, busy mid-range horn to the inkiest piano bass-line. The nightmare March in which the violin gets out of step with the piano was suitably demented, though Osostowicz’s sound was often swallowed up; Stirling’s wild interruptions set the piano strings ringing even after it had finished. The lamenting Adagio is peculiarly devastating, plumbing depths far beyond those even Shostakovich reached.

Such a pain found an echo at the centre of Brahms’s own trio, forever associated with his mother’s death. As those magical, billowing minor chords sweep into the Adagio, Brahms lead us down to somewhere very dark. Osostowicz captured the dead stillness of that inner sanctum, and the grief-struck irregular song which seems to have no beginning and no end, while Dussek lent a velvet depth of tone. The clarion confidence of the hunting horn’s call comes to the rescue in that dazzling bright finale, which here galloped past on a wave of energy. While Stirling’s sound glowed, one misses the narrow-bore natural horn in this work, though it wasn’t favoured by Brahms (hear the wonderful recording by Faust/Melnikov/van der Zwart/Harmonia Mundi). Here its sinew and variety of tone would have better complemented Osostowicz’s darkling, occasionally wiry, violin sound, particularly in the ardent opening melody.

Chamber Classics Unwrapped continues on 19 February with Adrian Brendel, Andrej Bielow and Aleksander Madzar performing Ravel’s Piano Trio; the Navarra Quartet (20 Feb) and London Sinfonietta (21 Feb) 

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace