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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio for piano, violin and horn Op. 40 (1864-5) [28:25]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Trio for piano, violin and horn (1982) [23:08]
André Cazalet (horn)
Guy Comentale (violin)
Cyril Huvé (piano)
rec. Studio 103 Radio France, Paris, 1989
CALLIOPE CAL1857 [51:39]

It was a smart move by Ligeti to write a horn trio in 1982. The Brahms horn trio is the only well-known previous work for this combination – I don’t suppose Ligeti knew Lennox Berkeley’s charming 1954 work. Ligeti wrote it after the fallow period which followed the completion of his opera Le grand macabre in 1977, and it shows him reaching out for a new style, moving away from the micro-polyphony of such works as Atmosphères and the Requiem and towards the rhythmic complications which are displayed to their fullest extent in his piano Études. However, unlike any of these, it is an immediately attractive, indeed tuneful work, easy to enjoy though no doubt hard to play. He subtitled it Hommage à Brahms, and, like Brahms’s trio, it is in four movements. The main similarity between the two works is that Brahms wrote specifically for a natural horn without valves, while Ligeti occasionally uses natural harmonics, of which two are out of tune in our system of tuning. (He was to write specifically for four natural horns in his Hamburg concerto, one of his last works).

There is a three-note theme which serves as a motto and occurs in all four movements. It is first heard on the violin but is an evocation of a characteristic horn call, as imitated by Beethoven at the opening of the Les Adieux piano sonata Op. 81a. The second movement is a fast dance, of the kind Ligeti’s compatriot Bartók wrote in his dances in Bulgarian rhythm in his piano work Mikrokosmos. Ligeti subdivides a basic pulse of eight beats sometimes into 3+2+3 or 3+3+2. Add that the three instruments always play different versions of the eight beats simultaneously. The third movement is a march which seems to have gone wrong, with odd, jerky phrases, which is supposed to allude to another Beethoven work, the march movement of the piano sonata Op. 101. However, what I hear is closer to Birtwistle’s Carmen arcadiae of 1977; I wonder whether Ligeti had heard it. The finale is a passacaglia based on a descending chromatic motive, similar to that explored in the sixth piano Étude, ‘Automne à Varsovie’. It builds up to a thunderous climax before a very high violin passage and a very low horn one lead to a final statement.

The obvious coupling is Brahms’s trio, which he wrote shortly after the death of his mother. Unusually, he does not begin with a sonata allegro but with a magically evocative passage which is said to have come to Brahms when walking in woods at sunrise. The second movement is a vigorous scherzo and the slow movement a dirge, thought to have been intended as a lament for the composer’s mother. The finale exploits the traditional associations of the horn with hunting. The four movements are all in the same key, because of the technical limitations of the natural horn, but the listener does not feel restricted by this.

This is a reissue of a recording from 1989. It is well worth reviving. Both performances are good, and Ligeti himself praised the performance of his own work – a copy of his letter is reproduced in the booklet. The fact that this is a French team does not detract from their understanding of Brahms and his work is given a sturdy and, where required, an atmospheric performance. The recording quality is excellent, despite being nearly thirty years old.

There is a handful of other recordings of this coupling, though some are only now available as downloads (review ~ review). An American team on Bridge BCD9012 was the BBC Building a Library choice in January 2018. The died-in-the-wool Ligeti fan might prefer to have his work along with other Ligeti chamber works, including the two wind quintets, in volume seven of Sony’s abortive complete Ligeti edition (Sony SK 62309 01-062309-10). (The project was taken over and completed by Teldec, but that is another story.) For the Brahms without Ligeti there are over a hundred recordings, with the front runners including one with Stephen Stirling playing the horn (Hyperion CDD22082) and one with Teunis Van der Zwart playing a period natural horn as specified by Brahms (Harmonia Mundi HMA195198). But anyone who fancies this coupling should be well satisfied by this disc.

Stephen Barber



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