Review: Hebrides Ensemble & Marcus Farnsworth

First published in the Guardian on 7 February, 2014

Hebrides Ensemble/Farnsworth
University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel

This was a solemn, troubling and at times very moving First World War commemoration from the Hebrides Ensemble and the excellent baritone Marcus Farnsworth. Performed without break in front of a chapel war bearing the names of Glasgow students killed in service, the programme made context work like large-scale composition: each piece was coloured by that backdrop and by the music that came around it. Thematic links (loss, despair, defiance) tied the evening together on paper, but it was the emotional intensity of the delivery, particularly from Farnsworth, that kept me rapt.

Farnsworth opened and closed with two of Ned Rorem’s 1969 songs War Scenes, navigating the craggy vocal lines with directness and plangency and keeping the visceral Whitman texts upfront. Next came a new work, Parable, by Stuart MacRae: an austere and insistent setting of Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. MacRae skilfully renders multiple voices (narrator, Isaac and Angel): now wan, now grave or menacing, the storytelling is vivid and Farnsworth handled it superbly. The ensemble writing is stop-start, suggesting memories that refuse to either fully form or fully disappear. Piercing high notes repeat doggedly like sporadic gunfire. It’s an uncomfortable and arresting score.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet followed, beautifully played by Yann Ghiro as introverted thought pieces. The first was darkly contemplative, the second crazed, the third obsessive and tormented. Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad made an exquisitely poignant centrepiece to the programme, sung by Farnsworth with heartbreakingly fragile masculinity. Pianist Philip Moore played a stern, steely account of Debussy’s Berceuse Heroique; Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (in Webern’s chamber arrangement) sounded restless, torrid and ragged around the edges. Heard after Butterworth’s bitter-sweet songs, published only a decade earlier, the sense of cultural breaking point was unmistakable.