In this recording of the Brahms Horn Trio, Op. 40, Teunis van der Zwart plays a natural horn, the instrument the composer strongly preferred to the modern valve horn, although the more versatile valve horn was in common use by the time Brahms was writing. With the natural horn, certain pitches can only be produced by "stopping" the note -- inserting the right hand further into the bell -- and the result is a noticeably darker tone. Since the pitches that require stopping are most often leading tones and chromatic tones, their timbral pungency emphasizes their harmonic function, to a dramatically potent effect. In the hands of a player with the skill and artistry of van der Zwart, the varied colors of the natural horn are refreshingly vivid. This performance of the Horn Trio, with violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov, is altogether outstanding, virtually in a league by itself. It's a typically romantic work, characterized by deep passion and the juxtaposition of the most extreme emotional states, from beatific serenity to roiling tumult, and this reading captures those extremes with a sometimes startling intensity, while making the whole cohere beautifully as a thrilling musical experience. Van der Zwart's tone is astonishingly smooth and warmly enveloping, and he plays with impetuous abandon without ever slipping into excess. In contrast, Faust's tone is surprisingly reserved and chaste, more characteristic of playing Classical than Romantic repertoire. Somehow, her approach feels absolutely right; as an expressive foil to van der Zwart, the individual musical characters of the instrument's line are brought into strong relief. The violin may not sound as prominent here as in more typical performances, but the players' unusual balance works brilliantly. Melnikov gives an impassioned account of the piano part.
Faust cuts loose with fervor in the Violin Sonata, Op. 78. The combination of her passionately Romantic expressiveness with her somewhat cool tone sounds ideally suited to Brahms, who besides being robustly Romantic, was firmly rooted in the Classicism of an earlier era. Melnikov's performance of the composer's very late Fantasien, Op. 116, is warmly and intensely expressive. While giving full rein to the music's wild emotional swings, Melnikov plays with exceptional clarity; his skill at articulating inner voices is a marvel. The sound of Harmonia Mundi's recording, besides being wonderfully clean, draws the listener in and perfectly captures the intimacy of this chamber music. This release should be essential listening for anyone who loves Brahms. Highly recommended.