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Scottish Ensemble/Clio Gould; Toby Spence (tenor)
Wigmore Hall 14 February 2005

Britten Les Illuminations Op. 8
Bruckner Adagio (from String Quintet in F)
Tippett Little Music for Strings

Schoenberg Verklarte Nacht

Scottish Ensemble
Violin I Clio Gould, Sarah Sexton, Cheryl Crockett, Liza Webb
Violin II Jonathan Morton, Joanne Green, Laura Ghiro
Viola Catherine Marwood, Rebecca Low
Cello Alison Lawrance, Jonathan Tunnell
Double Bass Diane Clark

A rare opportunity to hear the Scottish Ensemble live in London was not to be missed. This is a twelve-piece strings chamber ensemble which is led by Clio Gould 'from the violin' so discreetly that it feels like unconducted chamber music. The sound was full and too overpowering for some of my critical colleagues fled back from the middle of the hall after Les Illuminations to the usual critics' seats below the gallery, from where all was splendid!

Toby Spence sung with ease and full tone, well balanced with the strings. He is as good as any who have challenged Peter Pears in this repertoire. This must have been as fine a performance of Britten's Rimbaud settings as ever heard there. No words were provided, perhaps because they are so elusive that one is likely to concentrate on the music anyhow. (They are given in full with translation in the booklet with the new Britten CD by these musicians, which many were buying at Wigmore Hall.) The other British work was Tippett's overlooked ten minute piece, which belied its diminutive title and length and made a strong effect before the interval.

There are some four versions of the String Quintet, undeservedly little known, but particularly relished by some of us 'imperfect Brucknerians'. I was unable to find the authority for playing the adagio with doubled strings and a string bass, which the programme annotator seems to prefer, nor am I convinced that it is better given separately rather than in context as a whole. The account these twelve gave of the string sextet Verklarte Nacht, on the other hand, sounded just right, the textures and dynamic range given full value in a performance which had obviously been scrupulously and lovingly prepared. For this, paradoxically, we did have the text, in German and with English translation, and also recited by Toby Spence before the performance - I doubt if many of us tried too hard to follow the stages of the dated conversation about the woman's affair and the man's magnanimous forgiveness?

The CD [Linn GKD226] which was being launched at this concert is a tremendous success, and indeed it was hearing that first prompted me to get to the Wigmore Hall concert. Having known these works from their early days, with Wyss, Neel, Pears & Britten, one approached them cautiously.

No fear; the performances are fresh and recorded so well that everything is clear to the finest detail. Toby Spence has all the right attributes for this repertoire and his account of Les Illuminations is particularly serendipitous. There were a few moments in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings which were not so perfect vocally, but all in all it is a satisfying rendition of a firm Britten favourite, with Martin Owen taking Dennis Brain's role. The Dirge is not quite as scary as in the classic Pears/Britten version [Decca 436 395-2].

The miraculous very early Bridge Variations, composed to urgent commission in 1937 (draft score supplied to Boyd Neel in 10 days, and ready for the Salzburg Festival in another four weeks) gets an irresistible virtuoso account from this conductorless ensemble - hear samples on Linn's website.

Also received:

Scottish Ensemble directed by Clio Gould , with the playing Rudolf Barshai's arrangements for string orchestra of Shostakovich String Quartets (Nos. 8 & 10) and Ravel's String Quartet; Linn HDCD CKD 095 & 215

These arrangements were apparently intended to encourage concert audiences who go to hear orchestras in large halls to become acquainted with some chamber music masterworks which they might otherwise avoid.

They are smooth and resplendent performances but (on my equipment) there is a loss of 'edge' and immediacy and I find myself unable to recommend them. The publicity material lauds the SACD format and it might be that one would have a different response hearing these CDs on the recommended equipment in surround sound?

Until then, of the two I prefer, and can recommend, the Shostakovich disc [CKD 095] which includes the Octet for Strings (played by the correct number of musicians) and a really sparkling and perfectly recorded account of the first Piano Concerto (the one with trumpet obbligato - John Wallace) by Sophia Rahman, fully the equal of more famous pianists who have recorded it; click to hear samples.

To my taste there is too much biographical and historical background information in the presentation, with lengthy performer CVs, and not enough about the music itself. The illustration, beautiful at first glance, is in fact a horrific photo of the destruction of Dresden, and the commentary suggests that the 8th quartet was a 'suicide note' in music; but Shostakovich was helped through his depression at the time and lived to write many more quartets and symphonies.

© Peter Grahame Woolf