10-13. Trio Opus 40 (1865)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

The second half of the nineteenth century knew a lively culture of chamber music that was patronized largely by the educated bourgeoisie. No composer epitomizes this culture more than Johannes Brahms, who published a total of twenty-four large-scale works for ensembles of two to six players. Most of these works are for combinations of keyboard and string instruments. Wind instruments, by contrast, are rare: in addition to the Horn Trio, they appear only in the much later Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Trio.

Every one of Brahms’s chamber works with winds, therefore, is something special. Comparing them to more traditional genres—the Horn Trio, for instance, is sometimes described as a piano trio with a horn instead of a cello—only highlights their singularity. The first publication of the Horn Trio included an alternative cello part, but even in an outwardly normalized performance by a piano trio (which Brahms thought sounded “awful”), the cello would still sound as if it were trying to imitate the horn. This is music that could not have been written for any other instrument than the horn.
The idiomatic horn writing in the Trio is, however, not what one might initially expect. The most predictable side of the horn’s musical persona, the hunting style, comes to the fore only in the finale. What stands out in the first three movements is the lyrical, or, as one contemporary reviewer put it, the “dark” side of the instrument. In this respect it is important that Brahms wrote his Trio not for the modern valve horn, but for the valveless hand horn, an instrument he also preferred in his orchestral works. By the time Brahms wrote his Trio, and especially in German-speaking Europe, the valve horn had rapidly gained popularity because of its greater ease of playing chromatically. For Brahms, this technical advantage came at the expense of a loss of the horn’s true character: a diversity in timbre across the range; a much darker sound quality, because of the many stopped notes; and a greater overall expressivity. Whenever he could, Brahms tried to convince players to perform his Trio on the hand horn. You can play it on a modern horn, he once wrote, but then “all poetry is lost.”

dr.Steven Vande Moortele-Toronto University

Stacks Image 2108
Some stylistic notes on the recording of the Brahms Trio Opus 40 and the Saint-Saens Romance Opus 36

The Brahms Trio Opus 40 must be one of the most recorded pieces in the horn repertoire. Whilst at first glance it may seem unconnected to the main themes of this disc its inclusion here can be easily justified given the connections between Brahms and Stenebruggen (see article 'Stenebruggen and the style distingué). What marks this particular recording of the Trio as unique is the goal of experimentation with stylistic diversity within the lyrical stylistic framework of the Liège horn tradition.

Romance Opus 36 by Saint-Saens shares in many perspectives these views, starting with the often misinterpreted articulation of the horn solo opening, and the 'un peu plus de mouvement , quite literally interpreted in this 'lyrical' recording.

Some considerations:

Tempo: The piece is in no way intended to show off horn skills, which unfortunately seems to be the intention of some other recordings, for example, often tackling the finale and/or scherzo in a tempo as fast as possible (although Allegro con brio cannot be considered as the equivalent of Presto).

On the contrary, Brahms wanted the piece to sound poetic. For this reason, we chose relatively slow tempos in order to make the phrasing as smooth as possible, with the typical
Romantic rubato to get the most of expression out of the phrases. We tried to avoid the modernistic focus on 'togetherness' at least in passages where it added something to the music. Also, the typical Brahmsian inequality in 3/4 bars helped to find a more free-shaped feel.

Lyricism: all themes were first approached as being song lyrics. Brahms's vocal music is of the most stunning beauty and the atmosphere of Brahms's choral works certainly served as a source of inspiration. We believe the use of a horizontal focus in this music, making one large and never ending tension trough every piece puts a lot of details in the text in a better perspective. The use of different kinds of legato in the romantic way, often with glissando-like slurs was another of many aspects which were changed in function to make the music more vivid. In the same way, we rethought articulation and dynamics with as much as possible respect to the urtext in the cases this was necessary, interpreting, for example, the numerous short crescendo-decrescendo passages in function of tonal colour instead of dynamics.

This helped to discover the poetry behind hundreds of different passages, such as the clear references to alphorn melodies as soon as the dialogue with the violin stops - the Alphorn was a metaphor Brahms used several times in his works, suggesting natural beauty and pureness, but also solitude.

About the Horn:

Natural Horn Courtois frère à Paris

more on this horn
back to track list

Stacks Image 3042
Chants d'Amour...
Stacks Image 3043
Tracks: Read&Listen
Stacks Image 3044
Stacks Image 3057
Alphonse Stenebruggen