Scottish Ensemble - Britten - The Sunday Herald

Any new recording of the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings and Les Illuminations will inevitably invite comparison with the classic Pears/Britten versions. The composer's incomparable performances will always be definitive with their sheer intensity and projected individuality. Though not attaining quite the same levels, this new Scottish Ensemble disc has a great deal to offer, not least the virtuoso quality of the playing throughout its 70-plus minutes. The young Britten's tribute to his teacher and mentor, Variations on a Theme Of Frank Bridge, takes a third of the disc and is given a performance of tremendous power and feeling. Written when the composer was 24 and still relatively unknown, the work explores and exploits the full range of tonal colour available to the string orchestra.

The Scottish Ensemble produces a breath-taking array of intense, precision playing with director Clio Gould leading her wonderfully concentrated players through Britten's emotionally powerful and vivid compositional tour-de-force. Tenor Toby Spence is the youthful-sounding, open-voiced soloist in Les Illuminations. Spence sings radiantly throughout - the work clearly suits him - and produces some superb moments of high pianissimo singing which are very impressive. The natural harmonics of Martin Owen's solo horn take a little getting used to in the Prologue but by the time the Epilogue arrives he has produced some truly superb sounds in an overall performance which, although enjoyable, somehow misses the inspirational.

13 February 2005