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Trio for piano, violin and horn in E flat major, Op 40

'Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music' (CDS44331/42)
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music
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'The Busch-Serkin Duo – Unpublished Recordings' (APR5528)
The Busch-Serkin Duo – Unpublished Recordings
APR5528  Download only  
Movement 1: Andante – Poco più animato
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 3: Adagio mesto
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro con brio

Trio for piano, violin and horn in E flat major, Op 40
The Horn Trio, Op 40, is one of those chamber works (Mozart’s so-called ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio, K498, for piano, clarinet and viola is another) which invents an entirely new medium and, at a stroke, raises it to a level that no later composer could reasonably hope to surpass. In his youth Brahms had himself played the horn, and his lifelong fondness for the instrument can be heard in such famous orchestral moments as the opening bars of the Piano Concerto No 2, or the alpine theme that crowns the slow introduction to the finale of the first symphony. Despite the fact that valve horns had been in use since the 1830s, Brahms always retained a preference for the more rounded tone of the natural horn, or Waldhorn. In 1860 he completed a set of four songs for female voices with an instrumental ensemble consisting of two horns and harp. The last song, an evocative setting of a text from Ossian’s Fingal, seems to have rubbed off on the opening movement of the Trio Brahms composed in 1865 while staying in forest surroundings outside Baden-Baden. The two pieces are in a similar slow tempo, and have the same dactylic rhythm.

The Horn Trio is, in fact, Brahms’s only chamber work to begin without a sonata-form movement. Instead, it alternates two ideas in rondo fashion, the second of them slightly more agitated than the first. One consequence of this unorthodox beginning is that the Scherzo, rather than being a sectional piece, is a through-composed sonata form, so that in a sense one could say that Brahms is reverting to what in the Baroque period was known as the ‘church sonata’ design, in which slow and quick movements alternated in pairs.

The slow third movement begins with rolled chords deep in the bass of the piano, like some infinite sigh of regret. There is an autobiographical explanation for the music’s profound air of melancholy: Brahms’s mother had died at the beginning of the year in which he composed the Trio, and it is not for nothing that the word ‘mesto’ (‘sorrowful’) appears in the tempo indication for this slow movement. The atmosphere of mourning is heightened by the sustained, winding theme introduced at the first entrance of the violin and horn. The piano’s rolled chords return, to be followed by another sinuous theme, played this time in dialogue by horn and violin alone. This second theme, closely related to the first, is to weave its way through the remainder of the piece (at the reprise, Brahms shows that it can effortlessly be combined with the piano’s lugubrious chords), until a more consolatory version of the same idea provides an unmistakable pre-echo—albeit in slow motion—of the finale’s bucolic main theme. Such thematic anticipations can be found on occasion in Schumann (the link between the close of the slow movement and the start of the finale in the Op 47 Piano Quartet furnishes an example which Brahms can hardly fail to have known), though they invariably occur in the closing moments of the relevant piece. Brahms, on the other hand, allows his harbinger of the finale to be followed by the passionate climax of his slow movement, before the music slowly sinks towards its subdued close.

The finale’s ‘hunting’ theme is enlivened by off-beat accents and, later on, by a characteristically Brahmsian cross-rhythm which has the bar divided simultaneously into two beats by the violin and horn, and into three by the piano. For all its rondo-like character, this is in fact a fully-fledged sonata movement, complete with a repeat of its exposition, but not for a moment do the music’s high spirits flag. A more complete contrast with the preceding slow movement would be difficult to imagine.

from notes by Misha Donat © 1998

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Details for APR5528 track 9
Scherzo: Allegro
Recording date
13 November 1933
Recording venue
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Recording engineer
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  1. The Busch-Serkin Duo – Unpublished Recordings (APR5528)
    Disc 1 Track 9
    Release date: February 2007
    Download only
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