Coffee Concert 5th December 2021 – Brahms Horn Trio – Other Reviews

There comes a potent moment at every live concert. When the audience are giving their thanks, admiration, and whatever else, to the performers as their final applause. Is it heartfelt? Is it diplomatically generous? Is it polite and lukewarm? It’s not just an audience verdict, it’s a human connection deepened when the vibe is good.

That moment is actually sacrosanct. It is shared by and belongs to the audience and the performers. For chamber musicians, meagrely paid by definition, applause (maybe with vocal embellishment) is a significant reward as well as feedback to be to professionally interpreted. For the audience, in the intimacy of a chamber music concert, it’s their chance in the relationship to give back for what they have received,

Not for the first time recently at ACCA, premature raising of the house lights at a recent Coffee Concert snuffed out this precious moment. A new trio was receiving fulsome salute and gratification in full flow from one of the nation’s leading chamber music crowds outside London. The artistes were about to make a second recall to the stage and were maybe to return with the gift of an encore. The show was not over.

But at this pregnant moment, with no professional feeling for it, the lighting engineer extinguished the applause. Why? Not until the performers have finally left the stage should any production third party break the spell which sells the tickets. This wasn’t a cinema’s rolling credits, a theatre’s fallen final curtain – not even an opera house with exalting fans refusing to let their superstars go but other audience members now wanting to make their way out.

Brighton Dome chief executive Andrew Comben, I can report, will have passed on these “comments to the venue’s production staff” by next month’s concert.

The concluding Brahms Horn Trio had raised further the audience involvement temperature in his concert. The music twice climbs from depth to height and darkness to light, ending in comprehensive exhilaration. It was heard here only two years ago (Endymion), when many people’s first experience of it, or others having unavoidably missed that concert, may have brought them back to hear this performance.

An audience doesn’t fail to ‘get’ this work. But it’s not often heard live because it’s an odd triple of musicians with insufficient matching music to generate a group concert career.

Afterwards, I asked composer-pianist Huw Watkins if this ensemble – fledgeling, nameless, wearing various tie-less black – could do anything about it. He pointed to his horn-playing colleague’s arrangement of a popular Mozart piece they had just played, and admitted he’d also got something new happening under his own pen.

Ben Goldscheider, of course, had to entrust Mozart’s two viola and single cello parts with the piano, to keep all the elements intact. We gained piano sound while losing string texture, but it’s what Mozart would have done himself.

Goldscheider, a Londoner, was five years ago the BBC Young Musician of the Year Brass champion. His morning’s work was immaculate. So fluid, secure, mood-mindful and instrumental colour-conscious, and with also the mobile body language, sometimes swaying shoulders and forward-bending knees, of an assured new young master.

He leads a dangerous life. A horn is a tube responding to forced air bringing accumulating moisture. Slippery wind-blown mist. Cracked notes are an occupational hazard and among lesser players, in group or orchestra, they may add up to several damaged glasses per drinks party. Not hunting, I noticed barely two, and the one in the Mozart masqueraded quite nicely as a semitone grace note.

New Zealander Benjamin Baker’s violin execution was acutely ensemble-aware. At times I thought I was listening not to an outwardly mobile 1st violin but a judiciously contained 2nd. Such was Baker’s sense of duty and occasion. ‘No need to upstage the horn and the composers aren’t wanting me to, either,’ seemed to be his shaping policy. ‘This music is celebrating co-existence, not rivalry.’

Ben and Benjamin (it must save confusion in rehearsals!) took their own spotlights during what Watkins had already brought to the repertoire table: with piano, a short unostentatious piece for each, both ending quietly, placed centrally and pivotally in the programme.

Coruscation & Reflection grabbed Watkins’ creative tiller halfway back through his 45 years. Watkins and Baker made it easy for us to imagine explosive, perhaps outrageous utterance, then uproar and laughter at a gathering where a raconteur’s sudden outbursts, possibly preposterous, grab the room.

(Continuing my own interpretation) it’s an extrovert who goes home examining their own conscience. The violin, that person, begins alone the reflective process and contemplates, regrets, perhaps self-admonishes, then encourages himself to greater caution with a concluding few fatherly pizzicato pats on the top of his own head. The piano, perhaps the conscience itself, surrounds the violin voice with a sustained soundscape, adding a few comments.

Watkins’ Lament is not only in horn legend Dennis Brain’s memory, as commissioned for a CD by this very same team-mate Ben Goldscheider, but also, he says, for “all things lost in the pandemic”. The date is 2020 but Watkins’ deliberate exemplar is Frenchman, Francis Poulenc’s bitter-sweet past tribute to Brain, the Briton, whose story is of a revered world talent lost in a solo car crash commuting home after a gig.

The horn flows; the piano is tense, churning and questioning the tragedy, for the horn then to wail and brood (Watkins’ muted-horn effect) towards a semi-strangulated cry of anguish. The piano then softens in drawback, and the horn calls. These now lengthen, again muted, wounded by the mourning, unable yet to let go, but resigned to something possibly without end.

Beware the power of a born composer in his 40s. Watkins has a track record of large and small-scale composition, for which high-profile commissioning musical clients have already been queuing up for concertos and ensembles. He’s resident composer with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It’s not hard to see why, in this, my first experience of his music. Here is new, dynamic but especially sensitive and empathetic musical speech from the east Welsh Valleys.

Watkins is also a force at the piano. This is the first time a composer has played his own work at a Brighton Coffee Concert. We anticipate authority in that, but it is also in their own playing and interpretation of great masters that an accomplished composer will be identified.

His Mozart , then his Brahms (before which he took a swig of fortifying water) was true chamber-music egalitarian, pushing, driving, showcasing others, flourishing at the right moments, never domineering or making the realm his own, but – most significant – maybe providing subtle composer’s subtle extra insights.

I was immediately reminded of hearing composer Benjamin Britten at the piano, performing with others. There is much that’s ringing authentic about this young artist. We are already aware of his similar contemporary Thomas Adès. Now watch Huw Watkins go, too.

Richard Amey of the Worthing Herald and Brighton & Hove Independent