SCO / Clyne & Britten
Perth Concert Hall
What a welcome sight. Thursday’s filmed concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, introduced by cellist Su-a Lee, returned this week to Perth Concert Hall, its stage floor area extended over the front stalls to accommodate the fuller string complement required for Benjamin’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.
The setting also inspired the theatrical positioning of tenor Allan Clayton and horn soloist Alec Frank-Gemmill as spotlit protagonists out front, looking inward to the ensemble, which the camerawork in Mark Parkin’s film direction inventively captured.
Directing from the leader’s chair was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who confessed to not ever having encountered Britten’s 1943 wartime song cycle while growing up in Finland. Evidence of that emerged in a performance entirely in tune with its movingly refined ecstasy, but much more interestingly coloured by a fresh-faced objectivity.
In all but a very few moments, it worked. There was a dryness in the string tone and articulation that underpinned Blake’s Elegy, for instance, robbing us of its blanket warmth and forward momentum. But in every other sense this was a truly compelling performance, set magically in motion by Frank-Gemmill’s pitch-perfect playing (even the jarring natural horn harmonics) of the solo Prologue, and sung throughout with candescent poise by Clayton.
Clayton – whose wild beard and distressed hair make him look as if he’d just walked off the final scene of Peter Grimes – is no vocal clone of Peter Pears, for whom the work was written. Nor does he ever pretend to be, allowing instead the more rounded purity of his tenor voice to express its own persuasive response to Britten’s masterpiece.
His partnership with Frank-Gemmill was compatible in every sense, generating musical dialogues capable of capturing the serene and thoughtful and the demonic and triumphant with equal conviction. The inexorability of the Dirge, unleashing those cascading horn counterpoints at its height, marked a thrilling moment, just as Ben Jonson’s Hymn elicited infinite expressive colours. And finally the horn Epilogue bringing the whole work full circle, this time offstage, its final dying note echoed by the emotive dimming of the lights.
Before the Britten, a smaller string contingent performed SCO associate composer Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a heartfelt tribute to her late mother, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.
The caressing Perth acoustics served to amplify its tenderness and unhurried quiescence, and from the strings a glowing warmth inhabited every gentle, keening bar, whether expressed through the gradually intertwining sighs of the opening lament, the ensuing glassy Tippett-like washes of polyphony, or the exhaustive bass drones that reset the opening calm.
See this concert free at www.sco.org.uk
Image: SCO at Perth Concert Hall, credit Ryan Buchanan