One might wonder if another composer can be found who offers the diversity of emotional and instrumental range we find in the chamber music of Brahms. Often choosing to devote himself to scores with smaller performing forces, Brahms produced richly rewarding works that are large-scale in their musical and dramatic expansiveness.
In the Horn Trio (1865), he brought together three instruments he himself had played as a young man. (This evening we will hear a realization by Dale Hikawa Silverman, in which she performs the violin part on viola.) Following at least to some degree the layout of the old-fashioned sonata da chiesa (church sonata) from the Baroque period, he begins his trio with an extended slow movement, the only one of the four which ignores conventional sonata or rondo structure. The two melody instruments trade statements of the somber principal refrain, which recurs over supporting harmonies from the piano.
An energetic scherzo movement provides ample opportunity for the horn player to evoke the outdoor setting that instrument inevitably brings to mind. Brahms summons up his deepest emotional resources for the profoundly sad slow movement. The recent death of the composer’s mother is generally cited as the source of the melancholy on display here. As the movement concludes, a slow theme (almost a kind of chorale) is introduced which will dominate the fast-paced finale.
— Dennis Bade