English Music for Strings – John Wilson & Sinfonia of London [Chandos]
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10
Lament, H 117
Serenade for Strings, Op.12
Music for Strings, F123
Sinfonia of London
Recorded at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London on 9-11 January 2020
CHANDOS CHSA 5264 SACD
Lento Religioso – Amsterdam Sinfonietta [Channel Classics]
Berg [arr. Wijnand van Klaveren]
Piano Sonata, Op.1
‘Lento Religioso’ from Symphonic Serenade, Op.39
‘Adagio’ from String Quintet, WAB 112
Lament, H 117
Adagio pour quatuor d’orchestre
Wagner [arr. Adrian Williams]
Prelude’ to Tristan und Isolde
Prelude from Capriccio, Op.85
Recorded at Stadsgehoorzaal, Leiden (2014) Bethlehemkerk Studio 150, Amsterdam (2016, 2020)
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS36620
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
Five stars for sensational technical quality in each case. However, neither of these overlapping collections is quite the unqualified success that might have been expected.
John Wilson and the strings of the Sinfonia of London come closest to nailing it. As might be expected their music-making is tremendously efficient. Lingering is frowned upon, the mood verging on the bullish in a relentlessly coruscating set of Frank Bridge Variations. Is it me or has the charm of Britten’s generic parodying lost out to all that brilliance? If Britten’s metronome marks are indeed this fast, he nevertheless gave the music more space when taping the score with the English Chamber Orchestra for Decca in 1967. Leader Andrew Haveron apart, the booklet does not list the players of the Sinfonia of London, hence the make-up of the band remains slightly mysterious. Less so the decision to record an English string music miscellany given the ensemble’s defining link with the Sinfonia of London with whom Sir John Barbirolli made his iconic HMV coupling of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in 1962. This was the first LP Wilson ever bought. The instruments seem closer than in many Chandos productions yet the sound team manage to convey the church acoustic superbly.
Without a conductor upfront (Candida Thompson directs from the violin) the twenty-two-strong Amsterdam Sinfonietta is less concerned with virtuoso weight and sumptuousness but then their deliberately downbeat post-Wagnerian selection may strike some listeners as not so much thought-provoking or consolatory as a bit of a slog. Almost all the tracks are extracts and/or transcriptions of some kind, whether minimally fleshed-out by their composers or radically reworked by other hands. One unarranged exception is the Korngold excerpt that lends its name to the whole anthology. Played with unprecedented care and doubtless deeply felt, there’s a chance that the movement might still make little sense to those unfamiliar with its parent work, the Symphonic Serenade. The chosen tempo is so deliberate that any sense of line is all but lost, Korngold’s central, more expressionist outburst coming across as a disconnected spasm.
Admirers of Frank Bridge will welcome two very different versions of the Lament he wrote in 1915, initially for piano, as a memorial for a nine-year-old girl lost in the sinking of the Lusitania. If like me you only know Sir Adrian Boult’s Lyrita recording, you will find his ‘vintage’ London Philharmonic strings outclassed by the newcomers. Wilson seems to have time to consider all the finer points of tuning, articulation and portamento despite verging on breeziness before a beautifully sustained conclusion. At little more than half his speed the Amsterdam Sinfonietta is not remotely ill-prepared so much as dangerously becalmed, the discourse moving too slowly even to sound like Delius – or anyone else.
On Chandos the Lament is the outlier, followed by more music from the 1930s. Lennox Berkeley and Arthur Bliss, lesser figures it might be argued nowadays, are heard here at something like their compositional best with Wilson’s crispness and clarity paying enormous dividends. These are five-star readings, the Berkeley topping its predecessor on the same label, from Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There is real joie de vivre as well as greater finesse and no tendency to race. In the Bliss, a greyer, more serious construct that needs a conductor of technical facility and heart, Wilson gives Boult’s various versions a real run for their money.
By accident or design the Dutch production stands now as a COVID concept-album. Not all the music is intended to offer consolation, though we end with Strauss at his loveliest. The sextet opening of his final opera has been in the group’s repertoire from its earliest days. The reimagined Berg Sonata is more successful as an opener than you might imagine, a halfway house between Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Berg’s own Lyric Suite. Along the way we dive in and out of more or less chromatic byways, with the seminal Tristan Prelude perhaps the most unexpected interloper in transmogrified form as the penultimate item.
The booklet is mostly helpful in explaining the choices in what is nothing like an ‘Adagio’ compilation of the easy-listening, Karajan-meets-Albinoni type. This time the players are listed though it isn’t clear what was recorded when and some salient points are lost in translation. Guillaume Lekeu (1870-94) is described as “the young deceased Belgian composer” – presumably ‘short-lived’ is what was meant. Nothing seriously wrong with the Chandos texts except that Andrew Burn discusses the pieces in an order neither chronological nor that in which they feature on the disc. Both companies provide full recording data and attractive packaging.