This lovely recording will be particularly interesting to aficionados of historical instruments. Isabelle Faust plays a Strad with gut strings, Teunis van der Zwart a 19th-century natural (i.e., valveless) horn, and Alex Melnikov an 1875 Boesendorfer piano. They tackle three wonderful Brahms chamber works, each of which has been recorded many times by top virtuosi on modern instruments.
I happened to have at hand recordings of all three works on modern instruments, which made comparisons possible. The results -- although subjective -- were surprising.
My overwhelming impression was that, in the Horn Trio, timbral and technical differences between the instruments render many interpretive choices insignificant. In Brahms, the development of thematic materials in all voices is of utmost importance. You want to be able to follow the musical ideas around, from instrument to instrument, to see how they grow, combine, fragment, etc. etc. in the drama.
That turns out to be a lot easier when you've got a Steinway, with its rich tone and long sustain; when you've got a violin with the power of steel strings; and even when you've got a valved horn. The modern instruments are just more capable of closely approximating one another in attacking, phrasing, and sustaining the notes. For better or worse, their timbres are more similar. You can hear the results in a performance from the Marlboro Festival -- Brahms: Sextet Op. 36; Horn Trio -- with Myron Bloom, Michael Tree, and Rudolf Serkin. They achieve tight ensemble more easily, and it's always clear that they're playing the same "song."
But maybe I'm making too much of all that. Will you enjoy this new recording? Absolutely. It is engineered well, in a way that emphasizes timbral differences: the horn fills the room, the piano less so (that pesky lack of sustain again), the violin least well (sounds a bit scrawny in fact). But they tackle the Horn Trio with full Romantic gusto. The combination of richly contrasting timbres is itself fascinating (and it's probably closer to what Brahms heard).
Melnikov also makes a satisfying meal of the Op. 116 Fantasies. Only perhaps in the G-major Violin Sonata could I have wished for greater expressive abandon -- here there are a number of competitive performances that could be recommended. (Although Isabelle Faust really shines in 20th-century repertoire, there's something a bit bleak about her view of Brahms...)
The The Penguin Guide has unabashedly promoted this collection as having the first use of Brahms' preferred Waldhorn, or valveless hunting horn, in the Op. 40 horn trio. Here, Teunis van der Zwart (no relation I assure you!) plays the hunting horn and is accompanied by violinist Isabelle Faust playing a 1704 Stradivarius and Alexander Melnikov playing a restored 1875 Bosendorfer fortepiano. The latter, with its wooden harp, has diminished vibrato and sustaining characteristics which work against Melnikov later in the piano music.
When it comes to the main dish, the horn trio, there have been other recordings featuring period valveless horns. One that stands out for me is Lowell Greer's on a (once) dirt cheap Classical Express recording that also included Beethoven's Sonata for Horn and Piano Op. 16, accompanied on a period keyboard by Stephen Lubin, and a horn sonata from the redoubtable Nikolaus Von Krufft. While the CD version of this is apparently out of print, download buyers can still purchase the music for about $7 from Amazon.
Good as Greer is, this one is better. Not only is the timbre of the elderly instruments displayed more fervently by the fabulous recording, the players go for broke emotionally. Zwart is an outstanding player whose lips and tongue must have taken a beating making this record. Faust is a still young virtuoso that specializes in lesser known repertory on period instruments, and Russian fortepianist Melnikov, whose contribution cannot be underestimated, has been her partner on other chamber music recordings including this one.
I differ from the other reviewer pursuant to the ability of the players to strike a unified performance through their period instruments. I see no difference in the work of these players than I heard in the performance he used as comparison with Myron Bloom playing a modern horn. Neither does the best modern instrument version I know, by the oustanding German horn player Marie Luise Neunecker, exceed this performance in that regard. I would argue the reverse, that these player have an unusual unity, in part aided by their elderly instruments.
To get an idea of the players' ability to perform as one, listen to the rollicking beginning of the Scherzo with its dotted, seesaw tempo and dynamics. Going a step further, to understand the depth of emotional utterance this trio brings to the music, hear the closing pages of the Adagio where Brahms' terrible longing -- almost as if he were again pining for Clara Schumann through music as he did when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody -- is more expressively stated than in any recording or live performance I know or have heard. These players have produced the great irony: an irresistably sympathetic and romantic performance of music using the supposedly inferior instruments of the composer's day.
Faust and Melnikov are not on the same exalted level in the Op. 78 sonata for violin and keyboard, mainly because the music never demands it. What impressed me most when I first heard this, and what I keep returning to on repeat listening, is the way Faust asserts herself through gut strings and bowing technique. No one would confuse her tone for the luxurious David Oistrakh for it is lean in articulation and on the edge of wiry. Yet it is never ugly and very well manifests Brahms' autmunal resignation. Even with a lively allegro at the end, following the tumult of the horn trio, this is a performance of high contrast that is at least contemplative, maybe even resigned.
Many critics have downgraded Melnikov's 7 Fantasies Op. 116, one of Brahms late life creations. I don't find the same faults other critics have though I think the playing sometimes transcends Brahms' nature, presenting the Capriccio in G minor as if it were Liszt and the Intermezzo in E minor as if it were Chopin. Melnikov is not always helped by his instrument; the lack of modern characteristics and swift, natural decay in the Bosendorfer sound keeps Brahms' sentiments from hanging around more than a second or two, disrupting the musical discourse. The young Russian is a fiery and passionate interpreter, and possibly his way with these miniatures may be too volatile. He sometimes has a little Glenn Gould humming going on, too.
While it would have been more expensive, I wish harmonia mundi would have employed a period clarinetist, added the clarinet trio and left the piano music home. As it is, this is a masterful performance of the trio and elsewhere never fails to be an interesting portrait of late romantic chamber music on instruments from the time. The horn trio is, in my opinion, nonpariel in the market today and Isabelle Faust is always an interesting, intelligent, cultured and dedicated player worth your purchasing dollar and enduring interest.
This well-filled disc at 79 minutes and well recorded in 2008 is an intriguing and rewarding set of performances spanning across a representative selection of Brahms' chamber music. The pieces chosen are taken from his mid to late periods of composing and make for a most enjoyable concert programme. The choice of instruments makes this qualify as a period performance.
The horn trio from Brahms' middle period is an outwardly joyful piece which finds Brahms in ebullient mood. Brahms was adamant that this was to be played on the natural horn without valves even though the valved instrument had been around for some fifty years. The reason for his preference was simply to do with the tonal qualities of the older instrument. This performance, played with consummate skill by Teunis van der Zwart, makes it very clear why Brahms would have such a preference. Indeed, the particular horn used here, with a larger bell than usual, makes a particularly rich and mellow sound eminently suitable for Brahms' sound world. The natural instrument is also capable of playing with plenty of cutting edge but without powerful weight which makes it ideal for such chamber music as it balances with the other instruments so well.
The violin sonata, played on the Stradivarius 'Sleeping Beauty' violin of 1704 and strung with gut strings is also expertly played by Isabelle Faust, much as one would expect from such an experienced and prize winning player. Her set of the Beethoven sonatas with the same pianist, Alexander Melnikov, is worth mentioning here as it too is a notable success. This is the first of three violin sonatas that Brahms wrote towards the end of his life and it has a certain autumnal warmth about it even though the interpretation overall is essentially large scaled and dramatic and displays plenty of energy. Isabelle Faust captures its range of moods perfectly blending the lyrical and dramatic characteristics of the piece.
The piano pieces come from Brahms' final period and are the most overall reflective pieces on this disc. The seven pieces are all short and range from the opening energetic presto Capriccio complimented by the final allegro agitato of the concluding Capriccio with an equally energetic allegro passionato Capriccio in the centre group. Placed between there are 4 intermezzi which are all gentle in character and which give to the whole set that certain autumnal air of reflection mentioned earlier. All of these pieces are played with evident sympathy by Melnikov, Faust's regular accompanist, and for these a Viennese strung Bosendorfer piano from 1875 is used. This has a far more mellow tonal range than a modern grand piano and more of a wooden timbre and with none of the sheer power of a modern Steinway for example. To hear these works played on such a relatively gentle instrument, but one with sufficient power to convey the scale and intent of the music, is both interesting and instructive. It opens a window into the sounds that would have been familiar to Brahms and which he would have had in mind at the time of composing the music.
I would suggest that this disc is fully deserving of serious consideration as a purchase particularly from those with an interest in the sounds that Brahms would have had in mind when composing. It also makes for a most attractive concert-styled programme which, although it may cause problems of doubling within collections, it also has plenty of compensating interest in terms of variety to offer on its own behalf.
This is a great recording. I chose it because I prefer a faster tempo in the violin sonata, and Faust & Melnikov perform it wonderfully (faster than Amoyal & Chiu (Harmonia Mundi Fr.) or Sparf & Westenholz (BIS), otherwise both good recordings). The Horn Trio performance is also wonderful, Zwart's natural horn sounding very natural (in a good way).
This recording is sheer heaven. The use of the natural horn, an older piano, and Isabella Faust's spare and tasteful use of vibrato, combined with the most exquisite ebb and flow of the ensemble's rhythm make this an extraordinary recording of extraordinarily warm and emotional music.