John Wilson conducts Sinfonia of London in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony, Theme and Variations, and Straussiana [Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

Symphony in F-sharp, Op.40
Theme and Variations, Op.42

Sinfonia of London
John Wilson

Recorded 14-16 January 2019 at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: August 2019
Duration: 59 minutes



However valuable John Wilson’s back catalogue, this August 30 Chandos issue might just prove to be his most substantial recording achievement to date. It is by my reckoning the tenth commercial release of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s once-neglected Symphony (Werner Andreas Albert set down the same three works for CPO) but it is indubitably ahead of the pack, setting new standards in several respects. The identity of individual players is not divulged, save that of the leader, the estimable Andrew Haveron, his presence confirming that the hand-picked band will indeed include veterans of the John Wilson Orchestra. Now into its third incarnation, the Sinfonia of London re-emerges as a session orchestra to rank with Charles Gerhardt’s National Philharmonic. It helps too that the Chandos sound team has found an ideal acoustic for the music-making, ample yet transparent. DG’s channelling of All Hallows, Gospel Oak for André Previn’s 1996 recording of the Symphony was more about endorsing deep-pile opulence.

Wilson’s own interpretative angle is not always predictable. The makeweights first. Composed in 1953 to a commission from the American School Orchestras Association, these modest scores have surely never been prepared to so exalted a standard. The oddly affecting Theme and Variations is given the upscale ‘Hollywood’ treatment, its slower sections delivered with the intense string vibrato and lavish expressivity associated with studio virtuosos rather than student ensembles. While Korngold presumably felt the need to simplify his idiom so as not to fox younger players, Wilson reveals the widest range of moods in its seven Variations, a sort of pocket digest of the composer’s world in what is indeed “a deft, beautifully structured piece” as Brendan G. Carroll’s note suggests. If Straussiana is not much more than a Johann Strauss II medley, it is at least delivered with singular panache.

In the Symphony itself, placed first in physical format, Wilson adopts a leaner, meaner approach, insisting on the abstract nature of a concert work whose appropriation of cinematic material is perhaps neither here nor there. The first movement though brisk is probably the most ‘central’ in its pacing, albeit with a uniquely crisp and detailed take on salient details, nothing taken for granted, woodwind solos always carefully placed, the timpani-writing never so audible nor so in tune.

The most controversial part of the reading is likely to be the Scherzo, slightly pruned on Rudolf Kempe’s ground-breaking 1972 LP. Here, Wilson still undercuts Kempe’s total timing by virtue of adopting a basic tempo far fleeter than that of any rival. The argument now recalls the ‘maliciousness’ of the corresponding movement of Walton’s First Symphony never merely jogging along. Its glorious horn-led second theme, so potently realised by Previn’s LSO, has to be slightly muted here lest it sap the impetus of the whole. The spectral Trio remains to provide the real contrast.

At 13’40 I am not sure the slow movement quite plumbs the depths – Pedro Halffter (Warner, Spain) goes so far as to break the seventeen-minute barrier – but there are none of the ensemble problems that arise (even for Previn) when its quasi-Mahlerian writing loses momentum. The Finale, almost always Korngold’s dodgiest movement, is kept on a comparably tight rein so that the references to earlier material seem more logical than discursive.

The incidentals are glorious but above all Wilson never lets the music sprawl. Is it too much to hope that he will now tackle the Symphonic Serenade, Opus 39? The best of Korngold’s late works, it’s the one still, perplexingly, neglected by most record companies. Meanwhile, should the Symphony become as ubiquitous as the Violin Concerto, I suspect Wilson’s radical reappraisal will have played a significant part.

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