When Ligeti saw eye-to-eye with Brahms
André Cazalet, Guy Comentale, Cyril Huvé Calliope
Here is something unusual: two masterpieces in the same medium, written nearly 120 years apart, the later work a homage to the earlier. One is the 1865 Horn Trio by Johannes Brahms. The other is the Horn Trio by the Hungarian post-war modernist, György Ligeti.
Brahms’s trio is especially intense in its nostalgia and melancholy, even by his standards. The sunsetglow horn melody at the beginning seems to come from some great distance, and it will come as no surprise to learn that it came to his ear while he was walking in the Black Forest. The emotional heart of the piece is in the sombre slow movement, written in memory of his mother.
Ligeti’s 1982 trio came after a fallow period, and caused a sensation, as he seemed to be turning his back on the fastidiously sensuous play of pure sound that made him famous, to reembrace melody, harmony and cultural reference. It must be admitted that Ligeti’s allusions to Brahms’s great piece are very oblique. He never quotes or even refers to Brahms, but there’s a pervading sense of the German romantic forest, thanks to the allusion to the famous “horn-call” in Beethoven’s piano sonata “Les Adieux”. An air of Brahms-like nostalgia suffuses the final “Lamento”.
This recording of both trios stands out from the crowd for the quality of its sound, the extraordinary subtlety of the playing, and the fact that when it was first issued in 1992 it was warmly praised by Ligeti himself, who was notoriously hard to please. The players are as responsive to the massive exuberance of Brahms’s trio as they are to its melancholy. In Ligeti’s trio they create the needlepoint exactness his music needs, and summon a huge rhythmic energy in the second movement, where references to Balkan dance and Central African drumming are mixed in a kind of hyper-refined “world music”. The final movement attains a huge despairing weight.
Often discs containing one classic and one modern work leave a sense that the later work stands in the classic’s shadow. Here both pieces look each other straight in the eye.