Classical review: Hebrides Ensemble, Glasgow

The Hebrides Ensemble
The Hebrides Ensemble
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A HUNDRED years ago, the western world was in turmoil, and not just with the political machinations that would kick off the so-called “war to end all wars” – the cultural and intellectual fabric of society was also in the middle of a battle, mainly with itself, the new versus the old.

Hebrides Ensemble: The Lads in their Hundreds

Glasgow University

Memorial Chapel

Star rating; * * * *

With such cross currents in mind, last week’s touring programme by the Hebrides Ensemble – The Lads in their Hundreds – was a moving, meditative sequence of music that threw up challenging comment on the decade that witnessed the outbreak of the First World War.

Monday’s opening venue was perfect – Glasgow University’s Memorial Chapel, built in the 1920s as a tribute to those who fell in the 1914-18 conflict. The small ensemble, with tenor Marcus Farnsworth, pictured left, wearing a military overcoat, played under shifting, moody lighting against a backdrop of the names of the fallen. I can’t imagine the ensuing performances in Edinburgh, Perth and Gateshead having the same visual impact.

For this programme was as potent a theatrical concept as a musical one, defeated slightly, but not entirely, by the audience’s natural insistence on clapping between works clearly designed by artistic director and cellist William Conway as a seamless, uninterrupted, thought-provoking meditation.

Two songs from War Scenes, settings of Walt Whitman by the 90-year-old American composer Ned Rorem, framed the evening. These are bitingly communicative works for voice and piano, the cloying anguish of which Farnsworth and accompanist Philip Moore articulated with real pathos.

George Butterworth’s settings of AE Housman, A Shropshire Lad, called for softer-spun intensity, which Farnsworth delivered in pastel-shaded performances. Moore’s solo account of Debussy’s Berceuse Héroïque was luminously moving.

Specially written for the programme, Stuart MacRae’s Parable effectively turns Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young into a dramatic cantata for soloist and small ensemble. Farnsworth revealed as much in his dramatic multi-characterisation of the sung narrative, around which MacRae’s instrumental writing, viciously suggestive at times, wove a chilling, if sometimes overwhelming, commentary. But did he deliberately choose to musically underplay the poem’s final ironic twist? It was a strangely muted moment in an otherwise effective piece.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet (soloist Yann Ghiro) and Webern’s distillation of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 (marginally dulled by the chapel acoustic) made their own mark in a wonderful evening of musical contemplation.

Seen on 11.02.14