Scottish Ensemble - Britten - Soundstage.com

The three remarkable compositions on this disc were penned between 1937 and 1943, when the precocious young composer was in his late 20s. They have in common the energy of youth and the wisdom of early maturity. The Variations, which on this disc comes as an interlude between the two vocal works, was the earliest, composed for Boyd Neel and his famous string orchestra. The latest to be written was the well-known Serenade. This incredible work was written for Britten's lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears, and the horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. Its texts are drawn from the best English poetry pertaining to the night, verse by Charles Cotton, William Blake, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Keats, and Ben Johnson.

All of these pieces have been recorded with Britten conducting. The composer was an inordinately fine, sensitive maestro. As good as his readings are, the ones on this SACD stand head and shoulders alongside them. You know something special is coming from the opening fanfare of Les Illuminations: precise, virtuoso, and yet thoroughly musical. When Toby Spence makes his first entrance, interest heightens. What a wonderful voice this young man has. Unlike the instruments of most English tenors, his voice is open at the top, and is radiant and secure, capable of stentorian, ringing passages or the quietest intimacy. In the Serenade, horn player Martin Owen, an artist of equal talent, joins him for a performance that glows with lyricism and crackles with drama.

The recorded sound is large and full, with singular presence and detail. The centre channel is not used, this being a 4.0 recording, but the phantom centre image is so stable that no one will miss it. The rear channels provide precisely the right amount of ambience.

If you know these works, rush to hear them in fresh and vibrant performances, if you do not, buy this disc for an incredible new experience. It captures a recording session where absolutely everything went right.

07 February 2005