Scottish Ensemble - Britten -

This disc isn't perfect, but it comes nearer than most. First things first. The recording is astonishingly truthful. The balance is close, giving us an involving sense of ‘being there' in the midst of this small group of exceptionally fine musicians, as well as affording a huge amount of detail. And yet there is an agreeable ambience, with a sense of space and perspective which allows us to experience the music as if from afar. It's seldom we can have it both ways, but this disc really does enable you to enjoy the music from the front row of the stalls as well as the back row of the circle - even simultaneously! The dynamic range is huge! Just listen to the contrast of the pianissimo trills opening Les Illuminations, and the bustling viola arpeggios which burst in moments later!

Happily, the polish of these performances means we have nothing to fear from observing the proceedings from such close quarters. The Scottish Ensemble plays with rare refinement and precision. Everything is beautifully articulated. And, though you might think the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge unlikely to benefit from being played by so few instruments, in fact the dramatic impact of their articulation more than makes up for any nominal lack of tonal weight. So we get the full expressive range in this wide-ranging music. They have nothing to fear from comparison with their multitudinous ‘competitors' in this repertory.

I'm afraid you can't say the same of the tenor and horn soloists, fine though they are. Toby Spence has an admirably fresh voice - youthful, but with a wide pitch and dynamic range, and excellent diction. His delivery is facilitated by taking time clearly to enunciate key phrases, rather than by varying his tonal palette, in which respect the best of his rivals are a notch or two ahead of him. Similarly, Martin Owen, the horn player, is a fine musician: I can't honestly fault him on a single detail, and he's equal to every one of the near-impossible tasks set him by Britten. But in terms of sheer tonal control and dexterity - especially in extremes of registers - I'd say he plays second horn to Brain and Tuckwell.

I'm not going to indulge in my usual comparisons, partly because the catalogue is full of appealing alternatives, and partly because - in a very real sense - there are no competitors: this coupling is unique, and the immediacy of Linn's recording puts this disc in a class of its own.
07 February 2005