John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London with Francesca Chiejina for Berg's Seven Songs at BBC Proms 2021. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBC

John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus Overture & Korngold’s Symphony, and Francesca Chiejina joins them for Berg’s Seven Early Songs

Johann Strauss II
Die Fledermaus – Overture

Berg
Seven Early Songs

Ravel
La valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestre

Korngold
Symphony in F-sharp, Op.40

Francesca Chiejina (soprano)

Sinfonia of London
John Wilson


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 4 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In recent years John Wilson has emerged as a significant figure in British music life, even if the Royal Albert Hall still knows him best as the man who extended the concept of authentic performance to the work of the great twentieth-century songwriters and their arrangers. This programme, in which his reincarnated Sinfonia of London made a much-anticipated live concert debut, was planned with evident care, each component embodying, reflecting or refracting a century of Viennese musical life. While the orchestra may have lacked some of its star players thanks to travel restrictions, weak links were obvious only in the concert opener. The leader was the young Welsh virtuoso and Wilson regular Charlie Lovell-Jones rather than old-hand Andrew Haveron. A generally well-behaved audience took time to settle.

There are several ways to deal with the Overture to Die Fledermaus. The Proms first heard the piece in the context of the differently conceived, deliberately relaxed Viennese nights introduced by John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra in the 1950s. As recently as 2020 it sat at the heart of a mélange of operetta favourites, albeit without an audience. As if taking on the mantle of Carlos Kleiber, Wilson and his team went for tight and crisp, olde-worlde waltz inflexions kept within bounds, the dexterity of the piccolo player registering in a coruscating, well-disciplined sprint to the finish. Unfortunately, the playing was not quite good enough elsewhere to avoid an overdriven stop-go effect.

Perhaps the players were coming to terms with a necessarily isolationist seating plan. In the Seven Early Songs the orchestral textures Alban Berg provided retrospectively in 1928 seemed close to ideal, complementing some outstanding singing from Francesca Chiejina. In 2019 she was the vocal discovery of Grange Park Opera’s Porgy and Bess in the role of Clara. Here she confirmed her potential star power. Though the voice is not huge, its perfect focus and intonation helped combat the dampening effect of the barn-like acoustic, her touch lighter than that of Renée Fleming who in 2007 offered an eighth Early Song with newly realised orchestral accompaniment plus arias from two Korngold operas. Berg’s mild intimations of expressionist angst were enough to outrage one 1930s listener quoted in the programme booklet: “I have been listening to the Promenade Concert relayed this evening, and while enjoying the delightful music of Mendelssohn and Schubert I must confess to a feeling of disgust at one other of the items in the programme – I refer to the songs composed by Alban Berg. To me these songs were just an appalling noise…”  Might Chiejina’s lustrous, luminous timbre have won him over? One of the Proms’ many late replacement artists (standing in for the Swedish soprano Miah Persson) she was understandably reliant on sheet music. Even so her subtly glittering deep red frock and statuesque stage presence (allowing for some simple but effective gestures where called for) wowed a by now attentive audience.

One more item before the interval: Ravel’s La valse, not much more stylish than last week’s leaden and inexpressive take on his G-major Piano Concerto alas, just faster!  The quiet iridescence of the opening pages suggested parallels with the Berg before giving way to an oddly business-like traversal. Ravel’s denouement, though suitably frenzied, risked coming across as a technical exercise.

If Wilson has a fault it may be a tendency to equate charm with a kind of laziness. That said, the uncompromising bleakness of his interpretation of Korngold’s Symphony, a work making only its second Proms outing, swept all before it. The team has released its own commercial recording, the work’s tenth to date, so perhaps it has, finally, ‘arrived’. That said, the lack of a continuous performance tradition makes for wide variations between readings. Wilson projects the composition as an abstract concert work, its appropriation of cinematic material neither here nor there. Nor does much in the score allude to the drenched ‘decadence’ of the major Korngold operas of the 1920s. The motto theme heard initially on solo flute towards the end of the first movement exposition (some prefer to define this as the second subject) has more in common with nocturnal Copland. The Sinfonia of London treated its every appearance with profound sensitivity, offering genuinely hushed playing and maximal eloquence. Only the dangerously jaunty finale seemed to lose its way, the composer’s fault. Not content with a memorably annoying transformation of his wellspring idea into what sounds like early Strauss, the parade of material from earlier movements leads nowhere despite witty moments, as when Korngold reveals his theme to be second cousin to George M. Cohan’s patriotic ‘Over There’. Wilson did his best to make the cross-copying seem less discursive than usual.

The first movement, tauter, more abrasive than on that Chandos disc, had made total sense. This is music (like Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony) deliberately sour in the aftermath of War, its metre and key signature awkward by design, its every resolution clouded by darkness and ambiguity, even and especially the last. The Scherzo had a Waltonian punch that arguably short-changed the ‘Hollywood’ opulence of its glorious horn-led second strain. A spectral, residually modernist episode, whether or not constituting the actual ‘trio’, provided the missing contrast. Where some conductors follow André Previn’s line, treating the slow movement as a sonic mausoleum for a lost world, Wilson was angrier, once again keeping the argument moving, climaxes prone to stringendo and slathered with intense vibrato-rich violins. The sound and configuration of the strings, if not the music itself, was more Stokowski’s than Mahler’s. Korngold had indeed become a new kind of post-Viennese composer.

The encore brought more scintillating playing, the Presto from Zemlinsky’s obscure fin-de-siècle ballet Der Triumph der Zeit. More tangled connections there in that this composer was embarked on a typically problematic relationship with the future Alma Mahler: decades later she would be the dedicatee of Korngold’s Violin Concerto. The Zemlinsky, as rendered by these expert players, was light as air, seeming also to provide his sometime pupil with a template for the jollier sort of Hollywood film score.

If you missed this thought-provoking, often exceptional Prom, it was filmed for broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday 9 September.

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