Pure chamber music in a glorious setting from Ben Goldscheider and friends

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival 2023 [1] – R. Schumann, Phibbs, Brahms: Ben Goldscheider (horn), Magnus Johnston (violin), Guy Johnston (cello), Tom Poster (piano). Marble Hall, Hatfield House, 29.9.2023. (CC)

The musicians in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House © Nicky Thomas

R. Schumann – Phantasiestücke, Op.88 (1842)
Joseph Phibbs – Horn Sonata (2023, world premiere)
Brahms – Horn Trio in E-flat, Op.40 (1865)

The Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival has been in existence for over a decade now – this is its 12th incarnation – and offers music making at the highest standards in beautiful surroundings. Beautiful in and out, one might say: the venues inside Hatfield House are almost as lovely as the coiffured gardens without. Almost.

Ben Goldscheider is the great hope of British horn playing right now. He performed at the Critics’ Circle Music Awards recently in an Elena Langer premiere. Although billed as a ‘Horn Recital’, the performance began with Robert Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Op.88 for piano trio, performed by Tom Poster (piano), Guy Johnston (cello) and Magnus Johnston (violin). The venue was the Marble Hall of Hatfield House – a beautiful, picturesque space which is nevertheless very resonant. Detail did get blurred but set against that was the radiant lyricism of the opening Romanze, the lightness of touch of the Humoreske (acoustic notwithstanding), proper chamber music intimacy in the Duett and a real sense of grandeur (indeed, some would say swagger) in the Finale.

I first came across Joseph Phibbs and his music at a VOCES8 recording session in London. His music has a strong voice with a focus on harmonic structure. His Clarinet Concerto was recorded by Mark van der Wiel with one of the orchestras he plays with, the Philharmonia, and Christopher Warren-Green. Many things come across in that piece – one of the primary elements is Phibbs’s ability to write so well for his chosen instrument. Not just in technical terms – his music fits the characteristics of the instrument so well, too (you can hear this in the agile passages in the first movement of his Clarinet Concerto).

The new piece, his Horn Sonata, was receiving its world premiere. He begins this five-movement piece with strong, declamatory statements perfectly suited to the horn. Both Britten (whose Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is such a staple of the repertoire) and Brahms (whose Horn Trio we heard as the final item) hover over this work – in fact, Phibbs directly quotes a snippet from the Brahms (most obviously when the horn player walks across the stage to play into the piano’s open lid, a moment of true magic). I do wonder if there is – at the very least – a nod to the Britten, too, in the neighbour note, keening figures in the fourth movement (a reference to the movement in the Britten that holds the perilous sustained top C). One heard a Brittenish element to the piano harmonies in the first movement, too.

Unfortunately without a score I cannot say if the vibrato on the horn in the first movement is notated, expressive, or nerves. Nevertheless, Phibbs does use effects well, and he is lucky to have a player such as Goldscheider who can play hand-stopped notes both rapidly and accurately in the second movement (where the piano part seems to veer towards Hindemith). Again, references are perhaps shadowy or perhaps invented by the listener: posthorn gestures sent this listener’s mind spiralling towards Schubert’s ‘Die Post’ from Winterreise.

Phibbs’s piece is essentially five character pieces (linking it, then, to the Schumann): an Aubade, a Rondo (Notturno), a Cantilena, an Elegy, and a concluding moto perpetuo, this last almost a throwaway afterthought. There are so many impressive moments: perhaps a word for Tom Poster’s playing, not only throughout but particularly the way he set up the absolutely shimmering atmosphere in the third movement.

This is an impressive piece, and one really does hope it gets established in the repertoire.

Finally, Brahms’s magnificent Horn Trio, written in 1840 and written in the shadow of the death of the composer’s mother. Both Brahms and Phibbs have a complete idea of what they want from their forces; both have a complete grasp of writing for the horn (no easy task, as anyone who has participated as a horn player in composition workshops will attest).

The work begins with the violin stating the melody – Magnus Johnston’s sound was beautifully burnished and warm. Sitting violin and horn directly opposite each other makes perfect sense (indeed one wonders if this piece is where Ethyl Smyth got her idea for her Concerto for Violin and Horn from … perhaps not such a wild idea when one reads Janiece Marie Luedeke’s dissertation at Louisiana State University (1998) – a ‘Performance guide for the hornist’’, available here.)

The present performance of the Brahms held a spacious first movement, warm, inviting against a properly rapid-fire, almost galloping Scherzo, a superb performance full of internal fire. The penultimate movement, an Adagio mesto is, like Phibbs’s penultimate Elegy, the emotional heart of the work, and spoke viscerally here, particularly when Brahms thins the texture to just violin and horn, a lonely, discombobulated moment of pure desperation.

On a technical level, one gets so used to the sheer stratospheric standard of Goldscheider’s playing so that when things very occasionally go even a touch awry it shows. His attack of notes is supremely calibrated – just a couple of attacks in the Adagio didn’t go quite to plan. Yet how the hunting finale romped its way home. All three players clearly had a ball (as did we, the audience)

As far as the concert is concerned, this was pure chamber music in a glorious setting.

Goldscheider will play the Brahms Trio on Sunday, December 17 at London’s Wigmore Hall with Callum Smart (violin) and Richard Uttley (piano): full details here.

Colin Clarke

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