Sunday 1 October 2023

The sheer delight of playing together: Ben Goldscheider & friends in Brahms, Schumann & Joseph Phibbs premiere

Magnus Johnston, Tom Poster & Ben Goldscheider at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Magnus Johnston, Tom Poster & Ben Goldscheider
at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Robert Schumann, Joseph Phibbs, Johannes Brahms; Ben Goldscheider, Tom Poster, Magnus Johnston, Guy Johnston; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Reviewed 29 September 2023

The premiere of Joseph Phibbs horn sonata, commissioned by Ben Goldscheider, was the centrepiece of a concert that showcased the performers sheer delight at playing together 

The Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival is in full flow and the early evening recital in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House on Friday 29 September 2023 showcased horn player Ben Goldscheider with pianist Tom Poster. The centrepiece of the recital was the premiere of Joseph Phibbs' Horn Sonata, commissioned by Goldscheider, and this was followed by Brahms' Horn Trio in E flat with violinist Magnus Johnston. The concert opened with Schumann's Fantasiestücke for piano trio when Magnus Johnston and Tom Poster were joined by cellist and festival artistic director Guy Johnston.

Schumann did not write his first official Piano Trio until 1847, though he had written the Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet in 1842. So his Fantasiestücke is the first work for the combination of piano, violin and cello, written in 1843. For much of the work, the piano dominates with violin and cello parts being firmly linked to that of the piano, providing extra colour and timbre rather than harmonic independence. In a way, the writing looks back to Haydn's piano trios with their origins in the accompanied sonata, and we can perhaps detect Schumann's new attitude to composition in the 1840s; he was now married and needed to earn money, so the Fantasiestücke is very much aimed at amateurs, music to be played in the home.

The first movement, Romanze was gently intimate, whilst the lyrically flowing second movement, Humoreske had rather a folk influence to it. It was impressive here, that Tom Poster played with an admirably combination of finesse and restraint, making this a genuine trio rather than being piano dominated as it can easily become. But the Humoreske is a substantial piece and part of the way through, suddenly things took off and we had vivid independence from the two string players. For the Duett, violin and cello were definitely to the fore, Guy Johnston's richly expressive cello contrasting nicely with his brother Magnus' elegant, fine-grained violin playing. The vigorous Finale gave us hints of the popular Hungarian gypsy style, but then it went in other directions, the piano returning to the fore. What really made this performance was the sense of ensemble, of give and take, between the three players.

Joseph Phibbs was commissioned by horn player Ben Goldscheider for a substantial work for horn and piano, deliberately linked to the Brahms' trio. Phibbs has written a five-movement Horn Sonata which, despite its name, is more akin to a suite and Phibbs described the movements as having the quality of short character pieces.

The first movement, Aubade opened with striking piano gestures reminiscent of Stravinsky contrasting with lyric, rhapsodic horn calls. Whilst the music developed in intensity and density of writing, it then unwound slowly, making you wonder what sort of morning song this was, but then the opening material returned to wake things up. The subsequent Rondo (Notturno) was based on material that was dark and restless, developing in insistent energy and threatening rhythm so that it was clear that this was a night of nightmares. Cantilena featured muted horn phrases over shimmering piano. Throughout the piece, Phibbs exploited the modern horn's timbral capabilities with much hand stopping too. In Cantilena, it was only when the instrument was unmuted that the horn phrases developed into something like singing length, but the opening material returned at the end, in abbreviated form, the singing was over. The Elegy featured a singing horn line over piano chords, the material recalling the previous movement but also hinting at Benjamin Britten (an influence that hovered around the whole work). It is this movement that contains a musical link to the Brahms' trio. The Finale was a sort of moto perpetuo, full of fast dazzle for both instruments though the chromatic writing made for a slightly disturbing element.

The work came over as more of a suite than a sonata, but was full of imaginative and idiomatic writing for horn and piano. Here it received terrific performances from Ben Goldscheider and Tom Poster. Goldscheider dealt with the work's challenges with devastating aplomb whilst Poster was wonderfully supportive and both brought out the timbral possibilities of the work.

Brahms' Horn Trio was written in 1865 and it remains an almost unique example of a challenging genre, the horn can so easily dominate. This never happened here, and we again had lovely collegial playing from the three performing, with Goldscheider deferring to Magnus Johnston's violin without ever seeming to give up equality. The opening Andante had a lovely mellow quality both to the sound and to the playing, but despite the lyrical beauty there was an underlying passion. Whilst the music grew intense at times, it was never for long. The Scherzo came over as more robust folk dance, fast yet serious, with a trio where things eased off and violin and horn sang delightfully together. The slow movement, Adagio mesto, is the beating heart of the piece, serious, sad and achingly beautiful. Again, violin and horn singing together over a darker piano accompaniment though there were rushes of demonstrative emotion amidst the overall restraint. The fourth movement came over as almost more of a scherzo than the second movement, busy and breezy with atmospheric moments where things eased off, but then we were off again. For all the sombreness of the first three movement, there was a sense of triumph about the conclusion, along with the players' palpable joy at playing together.

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