LSO Chamber Concert – 8 December

Horn Trio in E flat, Op.40
Canticle I, Op.40 (My beloved is Mine)
Canticle III
Now sleeps the crimson petal
Horn Trio

John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
David Pyatt (horn)
Eric Le Sage (piano)

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: 8 December, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

One of the coldest days of the year! The traipse from Moorgate tube to the Barbican was a labour of love. After all, you can’t ignore some of the finest music by Benjamin Britten, Hugh Wood in his 70th year, and that perennial (and culinary) German master Johannes Brahms.

Hugh Wood composed his Horn Trio between 1987-9. Somehow it reflects his allegiances to Britten and Tippett, but once the first movement complexities have unravelled themselves – the partly atonal writing with its violent spiccato thirds (violin), vigorous surging cadenzas (piano) and protesting fanfares (horn) – then a gentler, more pastoral-evoking tonal atmosphere takes over as the instrumentalists interchange ideas in a persuasive manner. The final, very fast and energetic, movement is more adventurous, more open in harmonic exploitations and builds towards a vigorous climax. Wood, seated opposite me, was clearly delighted with the performance.

Britten’s works formed the programme’s centrepiece and re-kindled the nostalgia of past events. Now sleeps the crimson petal is from 1943 and was discovered among Erwin Stein’s papers by his daughter (then, the Countess of Harewood). She was Britten’s editor at Boosey & Hawkes. The Serenade (for tenor, horn and strings) was written at this time, so there are obvious parallels in the calm, rocking motive of the piano part, the voice remaining in the middle register until just before the close where it soars aloft in beauteous manner.

Canticle I, for tenor and piano, was first performed at a memorial concert for the Revd Dick Sheppard, a founder of the Peace Pledge Union. Like him, Britten and Peter Pears were lifelong pacifists, so this music was apt for the occasion. Le Sage’s flowing, swelling piano reached an ecstatic vocal outpouring in Ainsley’s rendition of “He is my altar, I his holy place”.

Canticle III, ’Still falls the rain’, from 1954, is one of those inspiring, prophetic works that stay in the mind. It is dedicated to pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, who committed suicide aged 31. The other frightful happening, two years after the premiere, was the death of Dennis Brain in a car accident. Ainsley’s less emotional, more self-contained interpretation – compared to Pears – was held in reserve until the final stanza, which literally transforms everything before it. The ’shifting images’ in the piano parallel the extensions of the horn part which, in turn, echo the rising tensions of the tenor.

As an antidote, Brahms’s Horn Trio received an immaculate performance. Pyatt, Nikolitch and Le Sage had classical intentions, strictly correct to the score’s dynamics and in phrasal nuance, without sweeping Brahms’s romantic outpourings off the map entirely.

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