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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Britten, Purcell and Dowland: Scottish Ensemble, Toby Spence (tenor), Jonathan Morton (director), Martin Owen (horn) Wigmore Hall, 14.10.05 (EM)


A receptive audience filled the Wigmore Hall on Friday 14th October for a well-programmed concert of Britten, Dowland and Purcell. The Scottish Ensemble, led by Jonathan Morton, opened with Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. They produced a clear and radiant sound with excellent ensemble playing, investing the Aria Italiana with a great sense of fun, and creating a suitably astringent and harsh sound in the Funeral March.

It was fascinating to hear Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move next, given that the ensuing Lachrymae theme is based on this song. Toby Spence’s beautifully controlled vibrato was masterly, and his occasional husky, rasped note was fairly atmospheric – although at times he sounded almost too rough and harsh, and one wondered quite how intentional this astringency was. This Lachrymae was wonderfully chilling and captivating from the opening note - well-paced and beautifully performed. It also included outstanding solo viola playing from Jonathan Morton, the principal violinist and director – very impressive.

Purcell’s fascinating and brilliant Fantazia upon one Note followed, in which the cantus firmus voice continually plays a middle C throughout the entire work, without detracting from the piece at all. The contrasts within this work and the following Fantazia No 7 were brought out excellently.

The concert concluded with one of Britten’s great masterpieces, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I was slightly disappointed by the horn opening, which didn’t quite have the power, confidence or spaciousness that I would have liked to hear. Spence, on the other hand, seemed far from apprehensive, and gave a very relaxed, intimate and informal performance (with beautiful enunciation!). He has a powerful voice, with a slightly boyish sound in the upper register that suited the work well, whilst his tone - generally a little harsh and rough – is one that is perfect for the austerity of Britten (as epitomised by Philip Langridge). On the whole, however, I did not feel that he was quite gripping or haunting enough – Nocturne, although superbly sung, was too pretty and not dark or moving enough, and Dirge, taken at a fairly swift pace, was not quite as ghostly as it could have been (although it was still very effective). I felt that the horn slides in Elegy were too clean and therefore not as harrowing as I would have liked, and although I loved Spence’s sinister “joy” (Elegy), the word “bright” in the Hymn needed to be a little snappier. The Sonnet was exceptionally beautiful, however, with gorgeously translucent strings at the final, magical “and seal the hushed Casket of my Soul”.


On the whole, I was extremely impressed with this concert – Toby Spence is a talented singer, with a good voice for Britten, and the Scottish Ensemble is a dedicated and top quality string group, well-led from the violin by Jonathan Morton. A thoroughly enjoyable evening!


Em Marshall



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