Scottish Ensemble - Britten -

This is an outstanding disc, particularly a showcase for the talents of tenor Toby Spence and the excellent players of the Scottish Ensemble. I don't think that these works have ever been better sung, interpretively or technically. Spence has a truly lovely voice, with a sweet, open top very unlike the constricted, reedy timbre of so many English tenors, Robert Tear and Peter Pears (wonderful though he was artistically) among them. His lower register is warm, almost baritonal in quality, and this makes his voice a uniquely flexible instrument ideally suited to the wide-ranging demands that Britten makes on it.

In Les Illuminations, the lively numbers such as Villes have tremendous bravura, while the more reflective pieces--especially Being Beauteous--flow with effortless lyricism. The punchy accompaniments of Clio Gould's Scottish Ensemble keep the music moving as effortlessly as Spence sings it. If anything, the Serenade is even better. Horn player Martin Owen has a big tone, in the best English tradition, and he's rightly given absolute equality with the voice in a realistic acoustic. This makes his exchanges with Spence in a movement such as Nocturne absolutely thrilling, while the Blake setting in Elegy, the emotional heart of the work, is aptly haunting in its melancholy, and truly moving. These are simply spectacular performances in every respect, modern reference versions to set next to Britten's own.

The Frank Bridge Variations are a bit less impressive, not just because Britten's own performance is so fine, but because the Scottish Ensemble is a touch small in tone to give Funeral March the weight that it ideally needs, even given Gould's take-no-prisoner's approach. Her slashing rhythms and rapid tempos certainly dazzle, but the Aria Italiana makes an even better (and funnier) impression at a less frantic pace, with a bit more affection and rubato in its phrases. Still, it's a performance of a piece with the others, a good bonus between the vocal items, which remain the disc's highlights and principal attraction. Given sonics that are state-of-the-art in both stereo and multi-channel sound, the result is essential listening for all Britten fans.

07 March 2005