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Andrew DOWNES (b.1950)
Sonata for violin, horn and piano Op.93 (2007) [18.47]
Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900)

Trio in D minor Op.61 (1889) [21.31]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Trio in E flat Op.40 (1865) [27.41]
Brahms Trio Prague (Monica Vrabcová (violin); Ondrej Vrabec (horn); Daniel Wiesner (piano))
rec. Auditorium maximum (Audimax), Regensburg, 12-14 September 2007
ARTESMON AS726-2 [68.11]

Sample: Downes Horn Sonata Largo esspressivo

Experience Classicsonline



Why on earth do booklet compilers insist on printing English translations of the notes which have clearly been made by a citizen of the country of origin? Too often the result is gibberish as a result of direct translations from the original language. In this instance we are talking (or not) Czech. I am ‘banging on’ about it - translate that into Czech if you dare - because clearly (actually not clearly) the way this disc was recorded is unusual, or in Czech ‘realized in a very conventional manner’, and worth the understanding. Well, as for understanding, try this for size: ‘Extraordinary acoustic dispositions of the hall Audimax made it possible to bring into accord the advanced digital recording technology of today with the best practice of the good old golden times of the phonographic industry – the simple stereophonic technology. … It captures real sound field of the stage and the entire environment with an unmerciful precision and by its very nature it excludes any subsequent proportional modifications of the recording. That is why the sound form and balance of the recording is not secured by a usual battery of contact microphones, manipulation with buttons of the sound mixer and multi-track, but solely by a manner of interpretation, sense of sound of the musicians and the extent of their chamber adaptability’. Enough – I surrender, but can’t somebody out there do something to remedy this?

Andrew Downes was born in Birmingham and for long was based at the Conservatoire, latterly as Professor of Composition. He is a pupil of the late Herbert Howells, and, judging by the international activities listed in his CV, he is clearly doing well as a composer, with, above all, a healthy Czech book. He seems to like brass - that is the instruments, though I dare say the money too - with works such as ‘Suite for Brass Sextet’ for the Czech Philharmonic Brass Sextet, ‘Suite for six horns’ for the Vienna Horn Society, ‘Sonata for eight horns’ for the University of New Mexico Horn Octet, and ‘Five dramatic pieces for eight Wagner tubas’, this last premiered by the horn section of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra of which Ondrej Vrabec, horn-player on this CD, is the principal. Downes’ music is very attractive, makes for comfortable listening but at the same time covers a wide range of emotional contrast with appealing melody in thoroughly tonal style. Much is meditative, but livelier moments are crisply taut in rhythm and articulation. The wide-ranging demands encourage particularly fine playing from horn and piano, although the violin seems to take a relatively smaller role in the ensemble. The trio was commissioned by the Brahms Trio Prague, who gave the world premiere on 5 February 2008 in the Suk Hall of the Rudolfinum in the capital.

Heinrich von Herzogenberg - Austrian-born in Graz, but of French descent and officially Heinrich Picot de Peccaduc, Freiherr von Herzogenberg - lived in the shadow of his close friend Brahms. So too did Friedrich Gernsheim and Albert Dietrich, and all three composed music which is well-deserving of a hearing. For Brahms enthusiasts the name of Herzogenberg will be known as a recipient or originator of letters between the two men in the Kalbeck edition of Brahms’ collected correspondence. The two men were friends for thirty years, though being a friend of Brahms was never easy. Max Bruch got, and returned, the abrasive treatment at times; so too did Herzogenberg - but who did not give as good as he got - who admired Brahms, ten years his senior, to the point of adulation.

Herzogenberg moved to Leipzig in 1872 where, with Spitta, he formed the Bach Verein (Association), soon becoming its conductor. From 1885 until his death he taught composition either privately or at the Berlin Hochschule. His own works include many sacred and secular choral compositions, some 150 songs, three symphonies (plus five unpublished ones), chamber music, sonatas and keyboard music. Links with English music and musicians include an assessment of the 25 year-old Vaughan Williams, whom he passed on - briefly as it turned out - to Bruch, his faculty colleague at Berlin. Another was Ethel Smyth who, in their Leipzig days, the Herzogenbergs took under their wing almost as an adoptive daughter as well as pupil. ‘A more learned musician can never have existed’, she wrote in her memoirs. Herzogenberg was one of those who broke free from the throttling influence of Wagner and switched allegiance to Brahms after they met, when Brahms moved to Vienna in 1862 and Herzogenberg was studying conducting there with Otto Dessoff. There’s not much sign that the influence of the one giant was any less pervasive than the other. Both men cast vast shadows from which Herzogenberg and many others never broke free. Nevertheless he enjoyed a highly respectable and respected reputation. Though Elisabeth’s opinion was well thought of by Brahms when he sent them a new work, he hardly reciprocated by encouraging her husband. It would probably not have been anything but an uneven contest, but any such gesture would have been welcomed and Herzogenberg’s self-confidence less scarred.

The trio featured on this disc is for horn, violin and piano, whereas the original was for oboe instead of violin. Whether the change from wind to string instrument has been made specifically for this disc, or whether the composer had offered the alternative, is not clear. Whatever the truth of the matter, the music drives home the point that Herzogenberg was no epigone, but was a man who had something to say in a style not entirely derivative of Brahms and, before him, Schumann.

Brahms wrote his familiar horn trio in 1865, a year after the death of his mother, which event produced a deeply felt slow movement in both this work and the German Requiem. Elsewhere the music is joyful, if clichéd and stating the obvious with an excess of horn calls. Played with evident enthusiasm and panache with the violinist now making more of her role in the ensemble, the Horn Trio Prague reminds us of its greatness.

This is a disc of contrasts, though the span of years in terms of style between Brahms and Downes need hold no fears for the wary.

Christopher Fifield



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