Scottish Ensemble - Britten - Nairnshire Telegraph

Armed with travel rugs, thick jumpers, scarves and coats, we came prepared for extreme cold, but in fact Inverness Cathedral turned out to be relatively hospitable for the candle-lit concert by the Scottish Ensemble. The group opened with the number which supplied the concert with its punning title, 'Les Illuminations', a setting by Benjamin Britten for Tenor and strings of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. The soloist Iain Paton, quickly established his authority and proved to be an authoritative guide through Britten's rich and mysterious score.

From the extraordinary opening Fanfare to the concluding Depart, we were exposed to a series of highly individual sound worlds, which seemed to create an almost unbelievable palette of sounds from the limited variety of instruments participating. The singing was very expressive and technically superb, while the playing was extremely accomplished. 

The brittle construction of harmonics and very energetic passage-work demanded a lot from the players, but I think Britten would have been very happy with the way the ensemble translated his imaginative score into reality.

More restful all round was Britten's setting of Purcell's G-minor Chaconne, and the reverence in which the 20th-century master held his 17th-century idol was obvious throughout. The first half concluded with a very thoughtful reading of Frank Bridge's Suite for String Orchestra, which exploited in full the work's subtle and enigmatic aspects, reserving an atmosphere of bucolic innocence for the Finale.

This is a superb work, so redolent of the Edwardian society in which it was composed, and so evocative of a lost world which we can only occasionally glimpse before the horrors of the First World War obliterated it forever.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a scintillating performance of Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a display piece written by the pupil in honour of his teacher and showing off the powers of his youthful invention.

If it now sounds a bit of a rag-bag and the caricatures of the various musical genres come across a little superficial, as a showcase for the composer's versatality it is an unqualified success.

The Scottish Ensemble drew some spectacular playing out of the hat, and their own enjoyment of the piece was evident, and sustained applause suggested that this enjoyment was thoroughly infectious.

This was yet another splendid performance by the young players, and it was very satisfying to see the cathedral packed for a concert of challenging modern music. It just goes to show that imaginative programming and advertising can overcome all obstacles. 



27 December 2000