A horn trio wins converts at Wellington Chamber Music recital

Nautilus Trio: Wilma Smith (violin), Andrew Bain (horn), Amin Farid (piano)

Mozart: Violin Sonata in A, K 305; Beethoven: Horn sonata, Op 17; Koechlin: Four Little Pieces; Brahms: Horn Trio, Op 40

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 18 September 3pm

Wilma Smith, a former NZSO concertmaster, has been returning to New Zealand every year or so since she became co-concertmaster with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: usually with a strings and/or piano ensemble. This time, inspired by the urge to play Brahms’s Horn Trio, an appropriate trio was put together, comprising the Melbourne Orchestra’s principal horn and pianist Amir Farid.

Why Nautilus? Nautilus is a mollusc with a spiral shell divided into compartments. Is that the connection with the character of the French horn? In a subsequent exchange with Wilma, she confirmed that this was indeed the significance.

Putting together a programme for the somewhat rare combination of piano, violin and horn would not have been easy, though their encore showed other pieces do exist. They found one written for just those instruments in Koechlin’s short pieces which were attractive even if a bit insubstantial, and they didn’t do much to induce one to explore this interesting composer, some of whose other music I had met. Nevertheless, the writing for the three instruments was subtle and charming, offering the horn a very nice environment in which to work with the two stringed instruments.

The solution to fleshing out the first half was to play sonatas that used violin and horn separately. No trouble with the former, and the one they chose – Mozart’s in A, K 305 – was a good choice: neither well known, nor insignificant. Unusual in shape – two movements (as was not unusual at the time), the second, a theme and variations, rather slower than the first. The galloping rhythm of the first movement was a splendid opener while the Andante grazioso was an interesting set of variations with an unexpected modulation towards the end. It was a most successful opener, the two players demonstrating a rapport that was not just a matter of keeping perfectly together, but combining the voices of violin and piano rather beautifully.

Beethoven’s rather routine sonata (published with the reassurance that a cellist could handle it) is the sort of piece that is only played in circumstances like this. It calls for the horn to launch forth in military-sounding arpeggios in stentorian style, which does not usually bring out the horn’s most engaging sound. But as soon as lyrical passages arrived the player’s skills became more evident, unexpectedly perhaps, in accord with the piano. Individually the two players explored its character carefully, making as good a case as possible for it. By playing the second movement rather more poco than the tempo marking, poco adagio, might have indicated, they sustained its lines – and the slow breaths for the hornist – as well as exposing the somewhat vacuous musical content.

After the interval came the reason for the concert. The remarkable thing about this unique piece is the way in which you never feel that Brahms is going out of his way to write for the particular qualities of the horn. Yet nothing seems to be lie more naturally for the three instruments, either together or individually, at least from the listener’s point of view, than Brahms’s imaginative handling of the ideas; his unmistakable voice is present throughout. Most strikingly in the most passionate passages, the three instruments produced a blend that was sheer delight. Here, more than elsewhere in the recital, the horn’s lyrical qualities were conspicuous, handling the long melodies beautifully.

There is a view that the work might have been composed in response to the recent death of Brahms’s mother, and the third movement, Adagio mesto, might have endorsed this, the tones of violin and horn delivering poised, restrained music reflecting grief.

However, the second movement, Scherzo, and the Finale dispelled any real belief in the work’s general elegiac character. The Scherzo boisterous and extrovert and the Finale marked by the whoops of successive fourths that suggested well enough the activity that the horn was originally used to accompany.

A word about the pianist, Amir Farid. Throughout, his playing was marked by real individual distinction which would clearly make him a superb solo player, but his precise, carefully shaded, acutely pedaled performances in the various pieces, and his collaborative role in a richly sympathetic trio was quite admirable.

They played an encore after applause laced with bravos; it used the three instruments most happily, in an arrangement by one Ernst Naumann (I think Wilma said; he was a 19th century German musicologist/composer/arranger) of the last movement from the quintet in E flat for horn, violin, 2 violas and cello by Mozart, KV 407 (obviously written about the same time as the four horn concertos, which were for Mozart’s friend Ignaz Leutgeb) . This most convincing and delightful performance proved it a work of considerable charm which would, in this arrangement, have been an excellent companion in this concert. I suspect there could be a rush to find the piece on Amazon.com now (try Parsons first).

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