It would be difficult to name a post-1950 work for horn in chamber music that adds more to the repertoire than the Horn Trio by György Ligeti. Not only does it redress the paucity of works featuring the horn by established contemporary composers. It is also a pivotal work in Ligeti’s oeuvre, and it greatly expands the technique of horn playing. Ligeti is known for his swirls of sound that glitter and mesmerize, but the final “Lamentoso” adds a level of pathos and passion to his voice that was hitherto unknown. For many, the piece contains both the lowest note (written pedal D) and highest note (e-flat”’) they will ever perform in public. It also introduces his use of natural harmonic series on various valve combinations: a technique he would come back to in subsequent works. Ultimately, the piece ushered in Ligeti’s final style period, which synthesized the total chromaticism of his mature style of the 60’s and 70’s with the folk-song-infused style of his youth.
I first performed the piece in the late 1980’s and again in 2005. In my experience, if the players have prepared their parts individually, the piece goes together with surprising ease. However, the amount of individual preparation required, especially for the second movement, can seem overwhelming. I retained hardly any of the preparation from the 1980’s when I prepared for the 2005 performance. It felt as though I started over.
There are two editions of the piece. The original publication (Schott ED7309) is a facsimile of the composer’s manuscript and only offers the score. There now is also a computer typeset (Schott ED7744) which offers a score and a combined horn/violin part. Reading the facsimile at times requires a magnifier, but it contains essentially no mistakes. The computer typeset is easy to read but contains numerous errata, only some of which are noted in an accompanying errata sheet. Because I had played it once with the facsimile (before the typeset existed) I was able to remember discrepancies the second time around. Regardless of the edition you choose, organizing page turns requires careful planning. You will probably need two music stands in either case.
When I searched Youtube for a video to recommend, I was delighted to discover that many ensembles are posting great performances of the work. Horn players young and old have tackled it and play it well. I chose the linked video because the players have mastered the piece and the videography sparkles. It is a rare performance video where the video engages as much as the audio. My only gripe is that they divided the video into two parts to post it on Youtube, and the division occurs right in the middle of movement three. I can only think that the handful of down votes it received were because of that.