The wonderful arching, sinuous lines of 'Antique' can never fail to charm...
Claire Rogers 2002
The three works on this disc are some of Britten's best known and best loved, and have been recorded many times. Britten himself left his own recorded legacy of all three. They're all quite early works, composed before Britten's 30th birthday, and show not only his mastery of string writing but also his innate sensitivity to word-setting, be it Rimbaud's French texts in Les Illuminations or the setting of English verse in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.
On the face of it this hybrid Linn disc from the Scottish Ensemble has all the ingredients of a rewarding listening experience, but although there are lots of good things about it, the concept of playing these works with so few players is where, for me at least, it falls short of its promise. With just 12 players the resulting texture often sounds very thin, especially in the upper strings, and the overall sound never seems to fully blossom (although heard on a super audio player there is slightly more of a bloom and ambience). Also, the sound throughout the disc seems unnaturally biased towards the tenor and horn soloists, with the result that they seem rather loud, further emphasising the frequent thinness of the string sound.
That aside, these are dramatic and evocative performances, and the Scottish Ensemble, who are playing here without a dedicated conductor, tackle movements like the rapid-fire 'Aria Italiana' and 'Moto Perpetuo' from the Frank Bridge Variations with great energy. By contrast, their accompaniment to Toby Spence's moving performance of Les Illuminations' 'Being Beauteous' creates a feeling of being suspended in time, and the wonderful arching, sinuous lines of 'Antique' can never fail to charm - even with 12 strings.
Martin Owen's horn playing is rich and expressive in the Serenade, and he manages the haunting, swooping octaves in 'Dirge' with apparent ease, although Toby Spence's voice sounds rather husky at this point. So, all in all it's an interesting disc but not without its problems. Ultimately you need to decide for yourself whether it works for you, so do go and buy it.