By Stephen Cohn
Last Sunday I was drawn to the La Cañada Presbyterian Church to hear a chamber ensemble which was a combination of instruments I've seldom heard in concert: French horn, violin and piano. However, I have heard two of the fine musicians in the trio, Susan Svrcek, pianist and Jacqueline Suzuki, violinist. I was delighted, for the first time, to hear Steven Durnin play and talk about the French horn.
The concert began with an introduction, by Durnin, to the development of the French horn in which he showed some specimens of early horns and discussed the instrument's earliest uses in combination with piano and violin. In line with this history, the first composition on the program was Trio No. 1 in C Major for violin, horn & piano by Frederic Duvernoy (1765-1838) - a work that is amongst the first compositions for the Horn Trio. It was a wonderful introduction to the sound of the ensemble, even though, for my ears, the piece was more interesting historically than musically – this, in spite of a clear and meticulous reading by the musicians. Then followed Extase: Reverie, No. 4 by Louis Ganne (1862-1923) – a lovely, dreamy composition with elements of Impressionism, although not the Ravel/Debussy style but with more of a leaning toward lighter music of the period (Ganne was regarded as one of the leading composers of lighter music in France).
The two highlights of the afternoon followed: Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla – a ravishingly beautiful piece which has been arranged for many different ensembles. This version was arranged for piano trio by Jose Bragato and then re-arranged for horn trio by Steven Durnin. This work has one of those irresistibly charismatic, poignant melodies supported with very appealing, evocative harmonies. The ensemble played it with a kind of unpretentious, ardent soulfulness that went straight to the heart.
The main course of the afternoon was the Horn Trio in Eb Major, Opus 40 (1865) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Mr. Durnin told us that this composition is one of the main reasons that the Horn Trio is part of today's chamber music milieu. He also said, and I agree, that it is all you would hope for in a Brahms composition. It has the complex, chromatic harmonic palette of the late Romantic period, lush, intelligent melodies and, to quote Durnin, “a lot of this” he said tapping on the left side of his chest. It's a rich voyage and leaves one feeling like you've been through a significant experience. The musicians delivered all this with a sophisticated, confident, intensely musical and heart-felt through line.
Since the audience would not let them go after the Brahms, the trio graced us with a short, lovely encore: "Esquisse" by Georges Barboteu (1924-2006). It was a very rewarding concert – I look forward to more from this ensemble.