Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Horn Trio in E flat major, Op. 40 (1865)
György Ligeti (1923-2006)
Horn Trio (1982)
Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Horn Trio (2021)
Manuel Escauriaza (horn), Miguel Colom (violin), Denis Pascal (piano)
rec. 2021, Auditorio Manuel de Falla, Granada, Spain
IBS Classical IBS182022 [69]

Here is a disc of horn trios worth hearing, if for no other reason than it contains three major works, one of which receives its premiere recording.  At least I assume it is the first recording of Sierra’s Trio, which the present artists commissioned, but I could find no mention of that fact in the disc’s notes.  At any rate, I was very impressed with the new piece which could not have been a better discmate to the two famous trios.  It is also interesting that while Ligeti composed his as an homage to Brahms, Sierra studied with Ligeti and his work may be seen as a response to that of his mentor’s.  This results in a very apt programme, and the performances here leave little to be desired.

There have been a multitude of recordings of Brahms’s monumental work, one of which I reviewed in 2020, by hornist Alec Frank-Gemmill with violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore and pianist Daniel Grimwood on BIS that impressed me a great deal (review).  This new performance is every bit its equal.  There is no biographical information inthe booklet about the three musicians.  The hornist and violinist are Spanish and the pianist is French.  The young Manuel Escauriaza was born in 1995, while violinist Miguel Colom’s birth year was 1988 and pianist Denis Pascal’s 1961, quite a spread for the trio.  This also appears to be Escauriaza’s recording debut.

Escauriaza has a full, rich tone and a formidable technique.  Colom and Pascal are equally fine musicians and the recorded balance overall is excellent.  Their tempos are generally on the quick side and, while timings do not tell the whole story, it is interesting to compare this account with others in my collection.  Frank-Gemmill’s is faster, but only by seconds, and not consistently movement-by-movement (Escauriaza – 27:54 vs. Frank-Gemmill – 27:19).  On the other extreme is the performance by William Purvis with violinist Daniel Phillips and pianist Richard Goode (Bridge) who add four minutes to their account and whose tempi can drag at times.  None are as speedy in the finale as Tuckwell, Perlman, and Ashkenazy (Decca) who race through it rather recklessly and leave the impression of virtuosi showing off. 

A more noteworthy difference between Frank-Gemmill and Escauriaza is the instrument.  The former plays a modified natural horn and Escauriaza a modern, fully valved one that has a somewhat bigger tone.  The recorded sound is close and present, as it is for Frank-Gemmill, and none of the instruments is shortchanged in the balance – except for one place.  My only cavil with this new account is in the second movement Scherzo.  The beautifully lyrical second subject, where the horn and violin have a duet, the violin has the top line and should be heard clearly above the horn’s harmony.  Here one has to strain to hear the violin fully.  This is not a game-changer, as one can mentally “hear” the proper relationship, whereas in the third movement their similar harmony is in perfect balance.  Except for that single instance, this account is one of the best I have ever heard of the Brahms trio, and I have listened to many.

Ligeti’s Horn Trio also receives a superb performance.  It is a tough work to play, especially for the horn, but all of the performers who I have heard seem to master it.  Escauriaza, Colom and Pascal are clearly up to the task.  This is one of the transitional pieces Ligeti composed at the beginning of his final period, after a four-year hiatus.  It has a more traditional form than much of his earlier music, and is easier for the listener to grasp.  Though composed as a companion to the Brahms trio, its only musical reference is to Beethoven where the trio’s opening theme contains a distorted quotation in the violin to the beginning of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Les Adieux”.  Otherwise, the similarity with Brahms is more in the structure of the work with the first movement as an Andante followed by a scherzo-like second movement.  After that, any similarity ends.  The second movement, marked Vivacissimo molto ritmico, consists of dance rhythms that have their antecedents in folk music.  Sierra relates, as noted in the CD booklet, how Ligeti wondered whether these dance rhythms sounded “Caribbean” to Sierra (Sierra is Puerto Rican).  Sierra’s reply was “not so much, it sounds rather Bulgarian to me!”  The third movement is a jerky march and the finale one of Ligeti’s characteristic laments, concluding the trio with a deeply moving Lamento. Adagio.

The present trio’s recorded competition, which has grown over the years, is evidence that Ligeti’s work has become mainstream.  My reference version has been that in Sony’s Ligeti Edition by Marie-Luise Neunecker with violinist Saschko Gawriloff and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, one that has held its own among all comers.  Another that impressed me is Adam Unsworth’s with Yuki Numata Resnick (violin) and Eric Huebner (piano) on New Focus, which I reviewed in 2020 (review). The new account is similar to Unsworth’s in its boldness and vivid recording.  Both are powerful and leave nothing to be desired in terms of virtuosity.  Escauriaza and company are especially poignant in the finale, capturing the sadness with sensitivity, but also the declamatory passages. In Unsworth’s performance and this one you can really hear the soft, very high violin part near the end, as well as the very low horn note in the bass.  However, there is also something to be said for the more distant recording by Neunecker, where the atmosphere and spontaneity of the performance tell.  I would be happy with any of these and also Purvis’s with violinist Rolf Schulte and pianist Alan Feinberg on the same Bridge disc with the Brahms trio.  They take some two minutes longer than the others in the finale—9:25 vs. 7:28 (Escauriaza), 7:44 (Neunecker), and 6:59 (Unsworth)—but convince in the near stasis of their interpretation.

What makes this new CD special, though, is the inclusion of Roberto Sierra’s new Horn Trio.  In some respects it is a virtuoso showpiece, but a serious one to be sure.  It is atonal, but not twelve-tone. Like the others it is in four movements, but only the second one could be described as a slow movement.  The first and third movements are designated in Spanish as Veloz (fast) and the fourth movement as Feroz (fierce), while the second is Fantasmagórico.  The work begins with all three instruments excitingly declaiming in jerky, jazzy, irregular rhythms.  It is indeed attention grabbing in its syncopation.  The violin has interesting sul ponticello passages, too. Then the second movement contrasts in that each instrument plays solo some of the time with slow chords in a more homophonic manner.  There is great dynamic variety here, and the horn contributes an echo effect by playing both open and stopped notes.  The third movement is light and rhythmic with much ostinato, particularly in the piano part.  I detected the influence of both Brahms and Ligeti in this movement.  Then all hell breaks loose in the finale.  There is heavy, pounding piano and much virtuosity from the horn and violin.  High violin tremolo and a loud horn and piano chord concludes the work. This is quite the opposite of Ligeti’s last movement.  In some ways I found Sierra’s trio easier to grasp upon first hearing than Ligeti’s, and I am confident that it will enter the repertoire for this combination of instruments.  The performance here is obviously authoritative.

This CD, as a whole, functions so well that I would not be surprised if it becomes one of my Recordings of the Year.  It is housed in an attractive cardboard tri-fold album with many photos and good notes in Spanish with English and French translation on the music.  The English is fine for the most part, but one can tell here and there it is a translation.  However, it would have been good if at least some information on the artists were included in the notes.

Leslie Wright

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