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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A totally rewarding 'concert' programme on period instruments, 22 May 2013
I. Giles (Argyll, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars when less is more, 27 Mar. 2015
schumann_bg - See all my reviews
How one reacts to this disc is likely to depend largely on how one feels about period performance - for me, it is fantastic, but if you prefer the sound of a modern concert grand you may find this like skimmed milk when you want full fat. Alexander Melnikov plays a Bosendorfer from 1875, which to my ears sounds superb. It doesn't have the sustaining power of a Steinway but it allows the music to emerge in a very natural way, without heaviness. Having more of a gap between the notes - a greater sense of diminishing sound - actually releases its Romantic import more vividly, so that in the fourth and fifth of the Fantasien Op. 16 a sense of gentle rapture has that yielding quality that can be cut out by a more hard-edged tone. However the pianist shows a fierce passion in the more turbulent numbers such as the preceding Capriccio, unleashing a storm of notes and somehow suggesting that less is more by his particular moulding of the phrases, by the way he locates where the emphasis of the line is. Certain chords, heard in the particular progression, give a real aural thrill.

Listeners are likely to be drawn initially by the Horn Trio Op. 40, a particularly ripe-sounding work where the melodies simply pour forth with the abundance of fruit in the right climate and soil. Again authenticity is the keynote, with Teunis van der Zwart using a natural horn (i.e. valveless) that matches the Bosendorfer perfectly. The violin sound is also relatively pared down in terms of vibrato; Isabelle Faust uses it, but to expressive effect, not like something that has to be unthinkingly applied throughout. In the Trio this gives a remarkable homogeneity to the overall sound, and allows you to hear the richness of the writing. The last movement has a splendidly rustic feel, with a slight rasp in the horn sound that almost allows you to smell the mud ... In the Sonata, Faust shows her distinction with a superb reading, attentive to everything, but ending on a note of plaintiveness, searchingly mined over nearly ten minutes. All Brahms's moods seem to be caught through these three instruments and their expression is as subtle as the colours in the atmosphere of the cover painting by Eduard Schleich from 1863 - clearly magical years for fine shading across the board.
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Brahms: Horn Trio, Op.40
Brahms: Horn Trio, Op.40 by Alexander Melnikov and Teunis van der Zwart Isabelle Faust
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