The Scottish Ensemble’s four-day residency in Dundee ended with the a concert featuring tenor Thomas Walker and a series of projections by video artist Netia Jones. Members of the Caird Hall audience were treated to an impromptu pop-up performance as a curtain- raiser. Starting from the rear of the hall, before moving onto the stage, string players of all ages from around Dundee joined the Ensemble in Pachelbel’s Canon, and the finale of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. It was a touch that Benjamin Britten, who loved to bringing together professionals and amateurs, and adult and child performers, would have approved of wholeheartedly; and the evening’s main event was to be one of that composer’s early masterpieces, Les Illuminations, a song cycle for strings and high voice, setting poems by Arthur Rimbaud.
Before this cycle, the Ensemble performed a series of works by three of Britten’s favourite composers: Mozart, Schumann and Purcell. The Mozart Divertimenti, are as their name suggests, pleasant diversions, and were beautifully played by the Ensemble. The Schumann String Quartet that followed, arranged by Morton for the whole Ensemble, was a work of greater substance. The last of the composer’s three quartets, has always been an undervalued work, and Morton’s arrangement made one wish it was performed more often.
Following the interval, Morton introduced an innovation that will continue throughout the season. The young Scottish composer, Martin Suckling, who was in attendance, has written a series of short musical “Postcards” which he will be sending to the Ensemble to perform. It is an intriguing idea, and one can only praise the Ensemble for commissioning new work. However, the first of these postcards, In memoriam EMS, was a rather shapeless combination of the atonalism all young composers seem obliged to offer and some Messiaen-style birdsong. The subsequent performance by Morton and three members of the Ensemble of three Henry Purcell Fantasies were far more gratifying and demonstrated why Britten reserved a special affection for his countryman’s work.
Fittingly, the performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations proved to be the highlight of the evening. The Ensemble knows this piece well and have recorded it with the tenor Toby Spence in a version that competes with, if not quite surpassing, the celebrated recording by Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears. This evening’s performance, however, was not a straight rendition . One has to praise the ensemble for not resting on their laurels. They have recently vowed to “redefine the string orchestra” and their collaboration with the video artist Netia Jones seems to be part of that ambitious remit. However, in this instance, the images were something of an unwelcome distraction. They were not entirely abstract and one could discern footsteps, as well as film strips and reels and other images that evoked light and illumination, and her decision to include the text of Rimbaud’s often difficult poems, both in the original French and in translation, was no doubt welcomed by those unfamiliar with the cycle. However, Britten was a composer with a strong sense of drama and the tenor, Thomas Walker, rightly gave a most dramatic performance; so much so that one had to keep reminding oneself to not look at him and pay attention instead to the projections. It made one wonder if a future collaboration between Jones and the Ensemble on an instrumental work would not prove more fruitful.
Walker, has a darker voice than either Pears or Spence, and as a result his reading of the cycle’s celebrated opening (J’aiseul la clef de cette parade sauvage/I alone hold the key to this savage parade) was less piercing and instantly arresting than those other tenors. However, any doubts were quickly dispelled and Walker made the piece his own, singing by turns with tenderness and aggression, but always with superlative tone and diction. It was a tremendous climax to an evening which reminded one why the Ensemble has such a loyal following.