It is only a few days since news broke about a previously unknown Brahms manuscript being discovered at Princeton University. At around the age of 20 Brahms left the single page of piano music in a visitors’ book after a dinner party, presumably as a generous thank-you note, and it is only now that it has come to light.
For the organisers of “Brahms Unwrapped”, the year-long festival at Kings Place, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. Not only has it put Brahms into the news at the very start of the festival, but the rather lovely theme of the piano piece also turns up in the Horn Trio of 12 years later, and that was in their opening programme.
For Kings Place, Brahms is a natural choice to follow Beethoven and Mozart as a composer of the year. Although the main hall is not large enough to accommodate his orchestral works, there is a lot that fits perfectly – chamber music from trios to sextets, piano pieces, songs and the unfairly neglected music for various vocal ensembles, much of it not for the church (though Kings Place will venture as far as the Deutsches Requiem in its version with piano duet).
The opening recital on Thursday might have been an evening at Brahms’s home in the 1860s, perhaps with Clara Schumann at the piano. The Schubert Ensemble, long-standing friends of Kings Place, paired the Horn Trio and the Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor in performances on a believably domestic scale. Played in the later arrangement with viola rather than horn, which Brahms came to prefer, the Trio ceases to feel like outdoors music, conceived during a walk in the woods, and comes to rest in the drawing room, suiting the Ensemble’s naturally intimate style.
This opening programme unwrapped a mellow, lyrical Brahms throughout. Mezzo Sally Bruce-Payne sang the two Op.90 songs for voice, piano and viola with an ideally firm, almost alto-like richness, and the Schubert Ensemble finished with a performance of the Piano Quartet that was almost too meek until the fire of the gypsy-inspired finale. But perhaps their slow-burn approach fitted the occasion. After all, “Brahms Unwrapped” has a whole year still to go.