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Heartfelt - Romantic Works for Horn
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Horn Trio, Op. 40 (1865) [29:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849) [8:47]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Auf dem Strom, D. 943 (1828) [9:52]
Karl PLISS (1902-1979)
Tre pezzi in forma di Sonata [25:07]
Rob van de Laar (French horn)
Thomas Beijer (piano), Mathieu van Bellen (violin), Karin Strobos (mezzo-soprano)
rec. June 2016, Galaxy Studio, Mol, Belgium.

With its reflective nature, related to Brahms's childhood and the passing of his mother in 1865, the Horn Trio Op. 40 is one of his more accessible chamber works. This setting is a tricky one to get right in recordings, but the Challenge engineers capture the horn's warm expressiveness and its rhythmic attack in the Scherzo and Finale without disadvantage to Mathieu van Bellen's violin. If anything, the piano could be a bit more present; its lower depth seems a touch too far away at times. Whatever the recording plusses and possible minuses (such things are of course subjective questions), this is a very fine performance indeed, with plenty of life and vibrancy. Despite the "Heartfelt"title to this release, the performance is relatively reserved and blessedly free of histrionics. The crucial Adagio mesto has plenty of mournful mood. Even so, it looks towards wide landscapes and blue skies rather than dealing with too much inner turmoil. This is certainly present here and there—kept nicely in proportion and more of a troubled memory than a rending of garments. The Finale is virtuoso but suitably disciplined and well under control by all players.

There are of course numerous recordings of the Brahms Horn Trio around. Decca Eloquence has Günter Högner (review), arguably more heart-on-sleeve in general than Rob van de Laar but comparable in many ways. The BIS label (review) balances Marie-Luise Neunecker's horn further away than either of these, possibly even a bit too much, but giving more weight to the violin sound, which can be an issue. It also throws up another point, the frequent coupling with Ligeti's Horn Trio which, while a great piece, may not be everyone's cup of tea. Other contemporary horn trios are available.

The valve horn we know today was a new invention when Schumann wrote his Adagio and Allegro. It seems he was a little too ambitious with the instrument, as the piece is still considered one of the most demanding. Rob van der Laar deals with the extremes of range and melodic leaps and bounds effectively while not making things sound too easy. Thomas Beijer's piano playing also deserves a mention, though again he seems just a tad too far away for genuine dialogue.

Schubert's Auf dem Strom, from his miraculous final year of life, marked the first anniversary of Beethoven's death. The text is a poem by Ludwig Rellstab that depicts "a farewell to a beloved as she crosses the river through death's dark veil". Karin Strobos sings this beautifully and with plenty of drama, though with quite an operatic projection that gives little opportunity for real differentiation within the text. This is not printed in the booklet.

Karl Pilss may be a new name to many, though he is known amongst brass players as the composer of concertos and ensembles for brass instruments. The Tre pezzi in forma di Sonata is written in a late Romantic style with fine lyricism, nicely effective harmonies and a delightfully bouncy Rondo alla caccia finale, though I suspect this will not be a piece that lives in the memory for long after it has been heard. This is a rarely recorded work, however, and would be a useful addition to any horn player's duo repertoire.

If you are looking for a good recording of the Brahms Horn Trio and like the idea of it appearing amongst other Romantic repertoire, especially the Schumann Adagio and Allegro, then this release should have plenty of appeal.

Dominy Clements



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