The world premieres on this album all date from around 1865, the year in which Johannes Brahms composed one of the most magnificent works in the horn literature: the Trio opus 40. The second half of the nineteenth century knew a lively culture of chamber music that was patronized largely by the educated bourgeoisie. No composer epitomizes this culture more than Johannes Brahms, who published a total of twenty-four large-scale works for ensembles of two to six players. Most of these works are for combinations of keyboard and string instruments. Every one of Brahms’s chamber works with winds, therefore, is something special.
What stands out in the first three movements is the lyrical, or, as one contemporary reviewer put it, the “dark” side of the instrument. In this respect it is important that Brahms wrote his Trio not for the modern valve horn, but for the valveless hand horn, an instrument he also preferred in his orchestral works. By the time Brahms wrote his Trio, and especially in German-speaking Europe, the valve horn had rapidly gained popularity because of its greater ease of playing chromatically.
For Brahms, this technical advantage came at the expense of a loss of the horn’s true character: a diversity in timbre across the range; a much darker sound quality, because of the many stopped notes; and a greater overall expressivity.
Whenever he could, Brahms tried to convince players to perform his Trio on the hand horn. You can play it on a modern horn, he once wrote, but then “all poetry is lost.”
— From liner notes by dr. Steven Vande Moortle, Toronto University