Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Concerto for String Orchestra
Delius, arr. Fenby
Introduction and Allegro, Op.47
Sinfonia of London
Recorded at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London on 5 January 2022 (Late Swallows) & 23 and 24 August 2021 (other works)
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: January 2023
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5291 [SACD]
Duration: 66 minutes
The flood of new releases from this source shows no sign of abating. And given the name adopted by John Wilson’s own revived ensemble, not to mention his well-known reverence for Sir John Barbirolli’s legendary HMV LP of English String Music, this might be the most audacious of them all. As with the team’s previous Chandos anthology of “English Music for Strings”, the recorded sound enhances performances at once sumptuous and forensic, captured by Ralph Couzens. The producer is Brian Pidgeon.
The collection is bookended by classics indelibly associated with Barbirolli. In Vaughan Williams’s ubiquitous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis the sonic terracing of the three string groups is remarkably acute, the echoing ‘consort of viols’ effect brought off splendidly. Later however the music presses forward more boldly, more insistently than some will like. The ebbing away of the central climax is idiosyncratic too, articulation and dynamic levels oh-so precisely calibrated. Both Terence Davies in Benediction and Oliver Hermanus in Living recently plundered this miraculous score to give their movies a suitably uplifting denouement. No matter. As the Sinfonia of London demonstrates, it will most certainly survive.
Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, placed last in the sequence, has its fair share of surprises. The manner is even more fiercely ‘objective’, at once hyper-virtuosic and sometimes (deliberately) unrefined as if evoking a bracing walk in the open countryside. Towards the end, as the Welsh theme is about to reappear in full splendour, Wilson’s very rhetorical pause might seem to work against emotional logic. Then again, the brilliance of the (cleanly enunciated and hence by no means over-hasty) fugal section banishes any vestige of sloppiness.
Between these formidable peaks of indigenous culture, Eric Fenby’s fleshing out of the slow movement of Delius’s String Quartet is lither than usual, refusing to get bogged down in chromatic treacle; Barbirolli’s own more affectionate take is nearly two minutes longer. Is this beautifully turned rendition somehow unidiomatic? The reminiscence of Parsifal near the close is very obvious. Listeners may have their own views.
Perhaps the truly indispensable item here is the Howells Concerto where Wilson pulls the music in a quite different direction from its previous Chandos recording. The new account is edgy and driven, the expression sufficiently a product of the 1930s to make Richard Hickox, working in the 1990s, sound merely limp. The outer movements acquire a harder edge under Wilson than under Sir Adrian Boult in Abbey Road, 1973. Meanwhile fans of Tippett’s ebullient Concerto for Double String Orchestra, inclined to marvel at its splendid isolation, will perhaps discover a plausible precursor. The eloquent central ‘Quasi lento’ does not dawdle but has all the sensitivity it needs, an elegiac piece associated with the deaths of Elgar and of Howells’s own son. How wonderfully played it is here, not at all forced! Or is it just that the music is less familiar?With essentially chronological accompanying notes by Andrew Burn, helpful and thorough, this brilliant disc merits a strong recommendation even if reactions will vary. I’m in two minds myself.