Coffee Concert 5th December 2021 – Brahms Horn Trio – Strings Attached Review by Michael Wilkinson

The Brahms Horn Trio gave the Attenborough Centre Audience much to intrigue them in this unusual but continually interesting recital. The performers, Huw Watkins (piano), Benjamin Baker(violin) and Ben Goldscheider (horn) are consummate performers in works that demand considerable versatility.

The opening piece, Mozart’s Quintet in E flat, for horn, violin, two violas and cello, K.407, from 1782, was rearranged by Goldscheider for this trio. In its original form, there is a certain depth provided by the two violas and cellos. In the rearrangement, horn and violin parts were very largely untouched, with much weight placed on the pianist. For all the versatility and commitment of the three players, I was not convinced by the new textures. Perhaps that was the consequence of overfamiliarity with a work I love, but Mozart knew very well what he sought to achieve, and his selection of instruments was deliberate. For all that, there was much to enjoy, not least in Goldscheider’s playing.

Watkins’ own two-movement piece, Coruscation and Reflection for violin and piano, from 1998, was a fascinating work. The first movement, Coruscation, was coruscating in its proper sense of ‘brightly flashing’ rather than the recent slang of ‘sharply critical’, making considerable technical demands on both players. The piano part is strongly percussive (after all, the piano is a percussion instrument), which contrasted with the more lyrical, though not obviously melodic, Reflection. Much of Watkins’ finest compositional work is in chamber music, and this is an excellent example, authoritatively presented. One hopes other musicians take it up, as it deserves to endure.

No less satisfying, and perhaps more obviously attractive, was the brief Lament for Horn and piano, composed between March and June 2020. Designed originally for Goldscheider’s project to mark the centenary of Dennis Brain, it became also a lament for the losses from Covid. It was a fitting tribute, with a stoic dignity and beauty. Quiet dignity of the opening, with long meditative lines (think perhaps of the mood of that last movements of the Ninth Symphonies of Mahler and Arnold) moved inexorably to something both more anguished and more personal in its pain. It was arguably the highlight of the recital.

After the interval, there was much to enjoy in an admirable performance of Brahms’ Horn Trio in E Flat Major, from 1865. This is a piece more demanding than superficial listening might suggest. As a whole, the four movements contain a remarkable range of emotions. Moments of aching tenderness alternate with mournfulness, excitement and a joyous fending. The Scherzo, for example, contrasts a lively scherzo with a sombre trio. Performances were absolutely alive to the changing moods, and reminded us of the astonishing quality of Brahms’ chamber music, ending a very satisfying concert.