Scottish Ensemble: Toby Spence sings Jacques Brel
Way back in the 60s, when the Scottish Ensemble was born, it was christened the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. Although a group always admired for pushing boundaries, a programme featuring music by Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel forty years down the line could hardly have been foreseen for an outfit that originally focussed on instrumental music of the baroque period.
Performing the wry, tortured songs of Brel is the Scottish Ensemble’s favourite tenor, Toby Spence. ‘My entangling with Jacques Brel goes back quite a long way,’ he says, ‘although the first time I came across him was through the song ‘Voir un Ami Pleurer’ (To see a friend cry), which as it turned out, wasn’t his best song. It’s a sickly and insipid kind of song.’ However, it was enough to lead Spence into further investigation of this unorthodox character who, long after his death, remains the most popular singer in the French language and still sells more than 200,000 albums each year.
When, in the pub one night after a Wigmore Hall performance, Spence mentioned to the Ensemble’s artistic director, Jonathan Morton, that he was interested in Brel’s music, Morton jumped at the chance to include the idea in the group’s 40th anniversary season. Morton grew up in Belgium listening to Jacques Brel and felt that he too could contribute to a special celebratory concert.
It is Brel’s directness with which Spence has most affinity. ‘It’s the way he writes and performs and channels his often taboo subject matter into his music that I admire. His poetry is so rich,’ he says. ‘I’ve had to adopt his style and whether I can pull that off remains to be seen, but it makes it more exciting, more of a challenge. I don’t think that the audience will leave disappointed.’
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Fri 12 Feb; The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Sat 13 Feb.