WORKS: Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano, Op. 40
PERFORMER: Danish Horn Trio
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9964
When Ligeti’s Horn Trio first appeared two decades ago, even some of the composer’s fans were perplexed. After the wild stylistic pluralism of the opera Le grand macabre, this new work seemed like a backward step: a ‘homage’ to music’s great conservative Brahms with clearly identifiable themes, recognisably tonal harmonies and almost no modernist effects – except the occasional clash between the equal-tempered piano and the horn’s ‘natural’ tuning (and Vaughan Williams had tried that 60 years earlier in his Pastoral Symphony). With time, however, it has come to be seen as one of Ligeti’s most original and finely achieved works. The language may seem familiar enough at first, but beneath the surface disquieting, subversive forces are at work. The magnificent slow Lamento that ends the work is perhaps the darkest thing Ligeti has ever composed – as powerfully elegiac in its way as the Adagio mesto third movement of the Brahms. The Danish Horn Trio’s performance brings all of this out with an unequalled combination of force and refinement; I found it even more haunting and unsettling than the impressive Neunecker-Gawriloff-Aimard version on Sony. The Danish Horn Trio is freer in its approach to the Brahms than the members of the impeccably mannered Nash Ensemble on CRD: their rubato is more generous, and more is made of tempo contrasts (as in the first movement), but there’s a contained vitality and intensity in their playing that beats any other recent version. The Danish horn-player Jakob Keiding also manages to incorporate one or two of the colour-changes Brahms would have expected had
the work been played on an old-fashioned 19th-century horn: the rasping G flat in the closing bars of the Adagio is a spine-chilling example. Even if you normally avoid chamber music – and especially contemporary chamber music – you should make an exception for this.