Scottish Chamber Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

APRIL will bring another opportunity to hear Benjamin Britten’s wonderful settings of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations when Claire Booth joins the BBC SSO for an afternoon concert that is mostly Mozart, but conductor Andrew Manze gave the work a particularly fascinating context for soprano Sarah Fox and the SCO in a concert of music from the years of the Second World War.

The song cycle was preceded by Swiss Frank Martin’s innovative homage to Bach, Passacaille, led off by the trio of basses and swiftly affording another opportunity to hear the gorgeous viola tone of Jane Atkins as all the string front desks took turns in the spotlight.

Later Manze added his own arrangement of a Purcell Prelude as a preface to the opening “Preludio” of the Fifth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, premiered in 1943. As affable as the composer may have been ­– as depicted in the conductor’s introductory remarks – it is at least debatable whether he would have approved. Manze’s purpose, however, was to lead us into a revelatory sonic exploration of the music, drawn from his expertise in period performance, that brought exquisite clarity to the Romance on the way to the Passacaglia finale of what was a pleasingly symmetrical evening.

Orchestra leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore was on superb form in that slow movement while in the Britten he was Lester Young to Fox’s Billie Holiday in the Antique and Royaute songs. These are challenging texts to perform, for all the lyricism of the French language, but that is a specialism of this singer and it showed in her relaxed and poised performance.

Manze brought very much the same elegance to the instrumental playing as well, with hints of the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes, two years in the future, in Marine and a real emotional tug in the closing pairing of Parade and Depart.