Scottish Ensemble / Spence, Wigmore Hall, London

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Originally formed in 1969 and directed for the past 12 years by its principal violin Clio Gould, the Scottish Ensemble comprises four first violins and three second, two each of violas and cellos and a single double bass - 12 in all.

Originally formed in 1969 and directed for the past 12 years by its principal violin Clio Gould, the Scottish Ensemble comprises four first violins and three second, two each of violas and cellos and a single double bass - 12 in all.

In some ways, this is a tricky size for a string orchestra - losing the intimacy of a true chamber group, while lacking the homogeneity and weight of a full symphonic string section. Scores where the violin and viola lines are sub-divided can prove an especial strain on tone and intonation in a string body so small. And so it proved in Britten's youthful song cycle Les Illuminations (1939) to poems of the more youthful Artur Rimbaud, with which the Ensemble opened its latest appearance at the Wigmore Hall.

One admired the élan with which Gould's players threw themselves into the opening fanfares of Britten's showy writing, but accompaniments elsewhere were not without a certain rawness. Toby Spence, sounding for once more heroic than lyric tenor, enacted the words almost operatically, though the dying fall of the final song, Britten-Rimbaud's farewell to adolescence, was touching as ever.

Bruckner's solitary String Quintet in F (1879) has long been recognised as a symphony manqué - particularly in its great Adagio, transcribed here for string orchestra. Its rounder-sounding, less edgy string writing found the Ensemble in fuller focus, sensitively negotiating Bruckner's great spans and jump-cuts.

Tippett's Little Music for Strings (1946), an occasional piece written for a group of roughly Ensemble size, proved better yet: flamboyant in its prelude, coolly measured in its ensuing fugue, touching in its slow passacaglia and neatly witty in its vivace finale. But best of all was the reading of Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") (1899), that hyper-romantic, half-hour tone-poem composed by the 25-year-old Schoenberg in an astonishing mere three weeks.

Schoenberg's original string sextet scoring can sometimes seem to burst at the seams in its perfervid emotionality, yet his later full-string orchestra arrangement risks a certain dubious glossiness. Here, for once, a 12-string body sounds the ideal medium; sonorous enough to ride the storms, yet still allowing its principals - Gould, the Ensemble's powerful first viola, Catherine Marwood, and eloquent first cello Alison Lawrence - to sing with a chamber-music-like individuality.

Prefaced by a reading of the poem by Richard Dehmel that inspired the work, Gould launched a finely paced reading of the work's complex structure, with its many shifts of tempo and surges of feeling, bringing home anew how finely balanced the overall form remains, with scarcely a note too many. This superbly composed, warmly expressive score surely has the very stuff of music in it - and so did this performance.

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