Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Scottish Ensemble/Toby Spence @ Wigmore Hall, London

13 October 2007

Toby Spence’s vocal performance proved a highlight of this concert from the Scottish Ensemble, soon to be released on Wigmore Hall Live.

Spence is an attractive, charismatic young man with a pleasingly burnished and refined vocal quality.

He proved a commendable exponent of Finzi’s popular song cycle Dies Natalis, a work completed in 1939.

Underpinned by the string orchestra’s lucid accompaniments, Spence moved effortlessly through the four songs. His timbre was innocent and transported in Rhapsody, animated and thrilling in the more explosive The Rapture, with the golden, even pubescent quality of his upper register proudly on display. His dynamic up above was shattering (effectively so) in this intimate acoustic, and he enunciated carefully and clearly.

I thought, watching the Royal Opera’s recent Katya Kabanova, that Spence’s lower-middle voices were rather underpowered, and here too his tone could be submerged, albeit only occasionally. Such was the dignity and eloquence of his delivery that this was but a minor concern anyway. More troubling for me was the microphone stand, placed before Spence’s face, providing a small but intrusive barrier between performer and audience; between giver and receiver.

The Scottish Ensemble, directed by Jonathan Morton, played the other work by Finzi – Romance – with all the profundity and lyrical beauty that Spence had brought to the song cycle, shaping well proportioned sonic arches and only once seeming in a tad too much of a hurry.

Works by Britten and Walton, the Three Divertimenti and the Sonata for Strings respectively, completed the programme. Both performances demonstrated the string band’s admirable warmth and fullness of tone, though the evident sonic luxury never threatened to smother the more intricate lines and more virtuosic rhythmic patterns. Britten’s work was particularly successful, with the brisk, bouncy dance rhythms (March, Waltz, Burlesque) expertly balanced and strongly bowed. Walton’s cauldron of elegaic and jagged lines was equally exciting, though the Allegro could have done with a tad more rhythmic sharpness and bite.

There was also an occasional suggestion of tautness and tension in the playing, no doubt explained by the presence of microphones. Whether this tension is conveyed on the CD release remains to be seen; it will be a worthwhile purchase either way.

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