Thoughtful, creative programming seems to be a Hebrides Ensemble trademark. In addition to repertoire, this one promised to be interesting: a seamless, 65-minute programme at the beginning of which we were respectfully requested to withhold any applause until the end.

Hebrides Ensemble © Sussie Ahlburg
Hebrides Ensemble
© Sussie Ahlburg
The lights dimmed and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, clad in WW1 trenchcoat, accompanied by pianist Philip Moore, began the first of Ned Rorem’s bookending items. “A Night Battle” from War Scenes (1969) opens with strident piano, which soon subsides, leaving the baritone to deliver Walt Whitman’s text in angular, recitative style, here impressively pitched. The printed programme contained the text, which few would see in the dim light – but Farnsworth’s impeccable diction meant that this simply was not a problem. Why print the text? A resonant concert rarely ends when the house lights rise, and I’d imagine many would revisit these texts, which recount Whitman’s experiences as a Civil War nurse.

Stuart MacRae’s Parable, which received its world première in Glasgow the previous evening, sets Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. Subverting the original tale (Genesis 22, 1–19) Abram (sic) declines the intervening angel’s sacrificial downgrade offer and slays his son, Isaac, rather than the suggested lamb. That this is followed by the words “and half the seed of Europe one by one” renders the parabolic content quite graspable. Farnsworth delineated excellently the tale's three voices: the narrator, ranging widely in pitch; terrified, breathless Isaac in short, high phrases; the solemnly authoritative angel. The ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano having unfurled a sinister, two-note contrapuntal texture, became more animated as tensions grew. The withheld applause seemed to heighten the parable's horrific outcome. I look forward to another opportunity to heard this gripping piece.

Two solo instrumental items punctuated the programme. Yann Ghiro featured in Stravinsky’s 1919 Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet. The opening movement meanders contentedly in the instrument’s low “chalumeau” register, and the shift of lighting to red seemed to suit this. Tone production and phrasing were hypnotic. The second, more recognisably Stravinskian, teased the ear with ephemeral harmony suggested by virtuosic scale and arpeggio work. The quirky closing piece frolicked along lopsidedly, fuelled by ear-tripping appoggiaturas. I could feel and hear the mirth in the room at its close.

Philip Moore’s account of Debussy’s 1914 Berceuse Héroïque engagingly conveyed the title’s contradictions. Despite its lilting, there is little of the lullaby in this work. Distant fanfare gestures ensure some of this but thinly veiled menace would ensure a quiet night’s sleep for few but the sturdiest of souls. Excellent pace and dynamics clinched ongoing restlessness here. The inclusion of the Belgian National Anthem (Brabançonne) honours the Belgian army who, by resisting German advances, assisted the defence of WW1 Paris.

Marcus Farnsworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Marcus Farnsworth
© Benjamin Ealovega
The central vocal work was George Butterworth’s 1911 Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad”. The programme’s title was drawn from the prophetic, penultimate song, “The Lads in Their Hundreds”. Arguably the most potent of these A. E. Housman settings is the closing, “Is My Team Ploughing?” Farnsworth revisited to great effect the art of delivering changing voices and perspectives heard earlier in MacRae’s Parable. Shrouded in high, uncertain piano harmonies, the thin voice of a dead young man inquires about the continuity of the life he knew: farming, sport, friends, his sweetheart, his friend’s romantic wellbeing. The full-blooded voice of the friend who survives him, accompanied by lower, louder, simpler harmonies, answers each query in alternate verses, bidding him sleep before the hardest questions might be asked. Finally, truth compels him to confess: “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart, Never ask me whose”. In the quiet moments which followed, the many audience members who shifted in their chairs, or uttered an audible “Hmmm” suggested that the moment’s rawness had registered with this Queen’s Hall audience.

Cold, blue light ushered in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1, Op. 9. Occupying that troubled territory between tonality and atonality, it seemed a fine emblem of a continent and a culture in crisis. In Webern’s 1922–23 transcription for quintet (from Schoenberg’s 1906 cast of 15), one could clearly hear the migration of themes from one instrument to another and, in some cases, their reappearance in later movements. Although there are many tender moments, it is a work of great brio, here played with infectious energy. The closing moments were delivered with such élan that those without programmes were to be forgiven for thinking this the closing item and edging into spontaneous applause.

As much reflective commemoration as traditional concert, this compelling dramatic arc ended with Rorem’s The real war will never get in the books. Warm applause was finally released for this excellent ensemble, especially, and deservedly, Farnsworth.