The line-up of violin, horn and piano as chamber-music medium seems to have been one of the real innovations of that supposed conservative, Brahms. His Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40, has posed a seductive but – in its latent balance problems – formidable challenge to subsequent composers since its appearance in 1865.
One striking response in recent decades has been the fine if taxing Horn Trio (1989) of Hugh Wood. Undeterred, that dazzling young horn-player David Pyatt presented both the Wood and Brahms as a handsome frame to the latest Barbican chamber evening by lead players of the LSO, in which John Mark Ainsley sang three of Benjamin Britten's works for tenor and piano – two of them also featuring obbligato horn.
The earlier of these was the setting of Tennyson's "Now sleeps the crimson petal" originally sketched for inclusion in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1942), but only disinterred long after Britten had reused its lulling accompaniment in his Nocturne (1958). The later was his Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain (1956), in which the intensely evocative horn and piano variations between the keening declamation of Edith Sitwell's text leave one regretful that Britten never tackled a horn sonata or concerto. But Ainsley and pianist Eric Le Sage achieved their finest span of poised intensity in the rapt final section of Canticle I, My Beloved is Mine (1947) to quaintly emblematic verses of Francis Quarles.
Wood's trio opens – doubtless in deliberate contrast to the lyricism of the Brahms – with a jagged horn tirade. This proves the upbeat to a first movement of kaleidoscopic textural contrasts, though subsiding in poetic calm towards the end – well brought off in this reading, in which Pyatt and Le Sage were joined by the volatile violin of the LSO's leader, Gordon Nikolitch. Its balancing other movement comprises an upbeat sequence of fanfares and fugatos.
If the Wood received a performance of careful polish, the same players were ready to live dangerously in marvellously spontaneous accounts of Brahms's galumphing scherzo and headlong hunting finale, though the sombre elegy in memory of his mother was remotely mesmeric. Only the problem of projecting intimate textures in so large a space alloyed the evening. The Barbican really needs a state-of-the-art medium-sized recital hall.