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S & H Concert Review

Britten, Brahms, Wood: John Mark Ainsley, David Pyatt, Eric le Sage, Gordan Nikolitch, Barbican Hall, Sunday 8th December 2002. (ME)


The Barbican Hall is not the most welcoming venue at the best of times, especially since the departure of the RSC, and on a Sunday the place is especially lacking in vibrancy. However, the LSO is nobly doing its best to provide a variety of events in the concert hall, the two which took place on the 8th giving evidence of their desire to go beyond the traditional symphonic concert fare: during the day, Richard McNicol presented an ‘LSO Discovery Family Concert’ for the 7 to 12 age group, and in the evening a more sophisticated public was treated to a chamber concert featuring the orchestra’s leader and its principal horn, together with the pianist Eric le Sage and the tenor John Mark Ainsley. It’s an interesting idea to present chamber works in such a setting, but I’m not entirely convinced that it works in practice, since confining the audience to the stalls serves not to give an illusion of intimacy but to remind one of what a vast space is out there, especially when the audience is not at full capacity. One could not help wishing that the performances were taking place at the Wigmore or even the QEH, where the singer and players might have felt more immediately comfortable with their surroundings.

We began with Hugh Wood’s Horn Trio, completed in 1989 and typical of this composer’s unashamed romanticism, especially in the lyrical second ‘bloc’ with its evocative violin melody. There were times here when I thought that Gordan Nikolitch was going to shoot off his seat, so energetic was his playing, and David Pyatt and Eric le Sage almost matched him in their passionate depiction of the music’s sometimes violent aggression. Britten’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ followed, in a fairly rare outing for this erotic little piece, first intended to be part of the ‘Serenade’ but omitted from the final work and destined to remain unperformed in public until 1987. It is closer to the world of the ‘Nocturne’ than the ‘Serenade,’ and presents the singer with many musical and verbal challenges, both in the fairly high-lying vocal line and the lush vocabulary of Tennyson’s poem. It’s hardly surprising that Britten and Pears might have been reluctant to perform this in 1943, but of course no such reticence is needed in 2002: it was therefore a little surprising that this was a fairly muted performance, with the singer sounding reluctant to open up his voice and the pianist a touch uncertain in places.

No such reserve was on display in Canticle 1, ‘My beloved is mine,’ Britten’s setting of Quarles’ ‘A Divine Rapture:’ indeed, you could hardly ask for a more frank avowal that this piece expresses the love of one man for another, despite its overtly religious theme. The flowing line of the piano in the first sections beautifully echoed Ainsley’s liquid tone, and despite a couple of glitches in the accompaniment this was a mostly fine performance of a challenging work. Lines such as ‘He is my altar, I his holy place, / I am his guest and he my living food’ were sung with beautiful tone, quiet intensity and the complete honesty essential if the work is to be fully understood.

Canticle III, ‘Still falls the rain’ was perhaps the evening’s best performance. This most Purcellian of Britten’s works is a technical and expressive tour de force for all involved, and here both piano and horn provided the singer with eloquent support, whilst he conveyed Sitwell’s words with exact intelligence, wonderful skill – the melisma on ‘mercy’ being especially fine – and gripping drama, with lines such as ‘See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament’ searing in their intensity. This is the sort of tenor singing which brings such works to life; Ainsley is not quite as theatrical as Pears, but he shapes the lines and gives point to the words in such a way as to hold your attention from first to last.

The somewhat unbalanced programme was completed by Brahms’ E flat major Horn Trio, written in 1865 when the composer was staying in the Black Forest near to where Clara Schumann was residing, a happy situation generally believed to account for the romantic features of much of the writing. This was certainly a performance of full-blown romanticism if ever I heard one, with the violinist once more seeming so rapt in the music as to appear at times about to ascend to the heavens, and the horn player equally intense. The beautiful, melancholy Adagio with its gently rocking movement was very finely played, and almost persuaded me that it was a good idea to programme this selection of works at this essentially unromantic venue.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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