I wasn’t looking forward to this concert with quite my usual enthusiasm. The French horn makes a lovely sound but it has nothing like the variations in tone quality possible on a stringed instrument; and it’s so distinctive and can be so loud that it’s hard to merge it into a very small chamber group without drowning out the other players.
At the end of the first piece, Beethoven’s Horn Sonata opus 17, my feelings hadn’t changed. It wasn’t the fault of the players. Stephen Stirling played the horn with sensitivity and Michael Dussek made the most of the huge piano part. It was more as though Beethoven allowed himself to be limited by the same attitude to the horn that I express above. As Michael himself said, in his short introduction, Beethoven wrote the “typical horn flourishes” of the time, but there was no subtlety in the integration of the two instruments, and not a great deal of interest in the horn part at all. With the start of the slow movement there were a few lines of expressive horn writing, slow and tender, but too soon the music returns to the martial spirit of the final Rondo.
The Beethoven violin sonata opus 96 was a different matter. It’s not just that each part is so much more engaging than the earlier work, it’s that the two players interweave like lovers, their mood changing from motif to motif. Mood changes are particularly swift in the complex first movement. The following Adagio was achingly beautiful, the Scherzo suitably lively and the final movement marvellously spirited and fast, interspersed with lovely tender moments. Krysia Osotowicz’s violin playing was lyrical, expressive, not flamboyant, understated even. Occasionally I wished for a slightly bigger sound but this is how she plays and it was totally true to the music. It was a performance of integrity, a conjunction of her personality and Beethoven’s writing, and I was won over by it. Michael Dussek’s expressive piano playing allowed the two parts to merge together then to play against each other. This was just what was missing in the opus 17.
The Brahms Horn Trio was another matter again. Brahms treats the horn as though it can do anything, and so it does. The integration of the three instruments is quite wonderful. These performers have been playing this piece together for decades and it shows; perfect ensemble, lovely sensitivity to each other. Certainly, the horn dominates when going full throttle, but Brahms allows for that in his writing: the horn dominates when it is supposed to, but not otherwise. The piece is full of lush Brahmsian tunes and intricate Brahmsian rhythms. But the most moving was the Adagio. Before they started Krysia spoke about the recent death of John Whitfield, the founder of Endymion, and she dedicated this performance to him. The forlorn melancholy of the Adagio seemed to be full of their grief. Krysia had also spoken of the German Romantic tradition of banishing grief with a call to the hunt. So the tremendous hunting calls on the horn in the final movement ended the piece, and the concert, with triumphant joy.