On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – John Ireland: Orchestral Works (Chandos)

John Ireland
Satyricon Overture (1946)
A Downland Suite [1941, arr. Ireland (movements 2 & 3), Geoffrey Bush (1 & 4)]
Mai-Dun (1920-21)
The Forgotten Rite (1913)
A London Overture (1936)
The Holy Boy (1941, Ireland’s string orchestra arrangement)
Epic March (1941-42)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5293 [67’16”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 26-28 August 2021, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

John Ireland is a well-respected composer in the scope of early 20th century British music. Often writing in shorter forms, his songs and piano music present a fine body of work and enable the listener to get to know this bittersweet musical personality. Meanwhile the more substantial chamber music shows Ireland was capable of handling larger structures.

A good way in to the composer’s output is through his orchestral music, and there are several attractive anthologies already available – from Sir Adrian Boult and from John Wilson himself, conducting the Halle Orchestra. Wilson returns to the composer here in the company of the Sinfonia of London to give us a collection of suites, tone poems and pictorial overtures. Perhaps inevitably, The Holy Boy – Ireland’s best-known song – is also included, in its arrangement for string orchestra.

What’s the music like?

Ireland’s music is simultaneously elusive, heartfelt, melodic and elegiac – and these fine performances get right to the heart of his thinking.

Wilson and his charges begin with a good-natured account of the overture Satyricon, enjoying its syncopations before a smooth and elegant second theme from the strings, who impress with their command of the longer phrases. They come to the fore in a co-arranged version of A Downland Suite, two movements each recast from the brass band original by Ireland himself an Geoffrey Bush. This is music of silvery tone and generous melodic content, with an incisive Prelude, solemn Elegy, poised Minuet and a crisp, upward looking Rondo. Contrasting this with Mai-Dun is a good move, revealing Ireland’s colourful orchestrations and some lavish harmonies while digging deep emotionally.

The Forgotten Rite, a prelude serving as Ireland’s first published orchestral work. also has deep underlying emotion, while The Holy Boy – Ireland’s favoured song – is more sentimental but not excessively so. Bigger sounds are promised by the Epic March, which certainly lives up to its billing and stature, and A London Overture, which may have less bustle than its Elgarian counterpart (Cockaigne) but creates a studied portrait of the English capital city.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wilson has an innate understanding of this music, and with top class performances and clarity of recording there is little if anything to dispute here. The bigger pieces fare particularly well, with a crisply deployed Epic March and a detailed account of A London Overture that has particular insight in the work’s quieter moment. The Sinfonia’s account of A Downland Suite is subtle but affecting, with a gently dancing Minuet and a thoughtful Elegy that tugs softly but insistently at the heartstrings.

Perhaps the most successful piece is Mai-Dun, exploring some glorious shades of colour and texture, while the dappled sunlight of The Forgotten Rite is also exquisitely painted.

Is it recommended?

Yes – even in comparison with the Halle anthology, which shares much of the repertoire recorded here – though that one includes the suite The Overlanders rather than A Downland Suite. Either are very fine collections, but this Sinfonia of London set of recordings is extremely well recorded and performed with rare insight, capturing the composer’s personality to a tee.

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You can view buying options for this release – on download or SACD – on the Chandos website

In concert – Laura van der Heijden & Jâms Coleman @ Wigmore Hall – Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest

Laura van der Heijden (cello), Jâms Coleman (piano)

Janáček Pohádka (1910, rev. 1912-23)
Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op. 55: Songs my mother taught me (1880)
Kaprálová Navždy from Navždy Op. 12 (1936-7)
Mihály Movement for cello and piano (1962)
Kodály 3 Songs to Poems by Bela Balazs Op. posth.: Why are you saying that you do not love me (1907-9); Énekszó Op. 1: Slender is a silk thread (1907-9)
Sonatina for cello and piano (1909)
Janáček Violin Sonata (1914-15, rev.1916-22)

Wigmore Hall, London, 9 March 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood Pictures (c) Olivia Da Costa (Laura van der Heijden), Sim Canetty-Clarke (Jâms Coleman)

It bears repeating that times are tough for new artists in music. Competition is fierce, while opportunities for live performance and recording have been severely hampered over the last two years of lockdown and pandemic restrictions. How refreshing, then, to talk about two new artists, a long term agreement with Chandos and a chamber music album notable for its originality and depth of expression.

The new artists, cellist Laura van der Heijden and her musical partner, pianist Jâms Coleman, have been performing together since 2017. Their debut album, for which this concert was an official launch, looks at music from Central and Eastern Europe with its roots in folk, either written directly for cello and piano or falling naturally into a vocal range.

The album shares its title, Pohádka, with a three-part fairy tale for cello and piano by Janáček, based on a Russian tale. This began the concert, a picture book performance bringing the story to life with sharp characterisation and flair. Janacek used a good deal of his music to explore macabre storylines and this was no exception, though the lighter, more lyrical moments were good fun. van der Heijden’s tone was sonorous and projected easily to the back of the hall, while Coleman’s stylish playing was capped with limpid work in the second section.

We then heard arrangements of two songs from Dvořák and Vítězslava Kaprálová as an idea complement, the former transcribing beautifully from voice to cello, with tasteful ornamentation from the cello. It was good to hear more of Kaprálová, a talented Czech composer who tragically died from tuberculosis when she was just 25. Her music immediately cast a spell, Coleman’s mysterious chords matched by a remote but moving line from the cello in its higher register.

Different qualities were required for the music of Hungarian composer and conductor András Mihály. His Movement for cello and piano was a dramatic rollercoaster, and rather volatile at times – reflecting perhaps the differing styles at play in modern music when it was written in 1962. While there were undoubtedly elements of Bartók and even Webern in the music’s contours, which veered into atonality at times, there was a fierce expression suggesting Mihály’s music should be explored further. Both players responded with a terrific performance, mastering the technical demands.

Zoltán Kodály was also an influence on Mihály, and his music suits the cello hand in glove, whether in large-scale sonatas or shorter, folk-informed songs. We heard two songs here, the cello a doleful voice for Why are you saying that you do not love me, while Slender is a silk thread found Coleman beautifully spinning out the silvery tale. However the single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano, at just under 10 minutes, made a lasting impression with its passion, profound lyricism and subtle melancholy. The performers’ love for this piece was clear, and the high voltage account found them finishing each other’s musical sentences.

The same could be said for Janáček’s Violin Sonata, a pungent piece whose proximity to World War One is evident in the rapid fire of its phrases. The composer’s unusual musical language was once again wholly compelling, with broad lyrical statements countered by strange, abrupt full stops to his melodies. The parallels with the current situation in Ukraine were impossible to ignore, especially with the emotion both players brought to the second movement Ballada, its sweeping melodies reaching skyward. Ultimately the acidic third and fourth movements cast a cloud over the mood, the players vividly depicting the distant sound of gunfire alongside more thoughtful introspection. van der Heijden was commendably modest about her own arrangement of the Sonata, for cello and piano, an extremely successful version losing none of the intensity or fractious treble phrases. Both players were superb, their virtuosity and togetherness notable throughout.

This was an extremely rewarding concert, energetic and romantic in turn but also thought-provoking through its wartime undercurrents. Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman deserve great credit for their refreshing take on a chamber music album, which bodes well for their ongoing relationship with one of Britain’s best classical independents. Theirs is a partnership to watch closely.

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On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – English Music for Strings (Chandos)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937)
Bridge Lament (1915)
Berkeley Serenade for Strings Op.12 (1938-9)
Bliss Music for Strings (1935)

Chandos CHAN 5264 [64’46”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alex James

Recorded 9-11 January 2020, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After three wonderful albums extolling the virtues of French orchestral music, Korngold and Respighi, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London charges turn much closer to home with a set of British music for strings drawn from the 1930s. They begin with an established classic, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, complemented by two neglected works from Sir Lennox Berkeley (his Serenade for Strings) and Sir Arthur Bliss (the Music for Strings), neither of which appears to have been recorded in the last 20 years. There is also room for the brief Lament from 1915 by Bridge himself.

What’s the music like?

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be familiar to many, but rarely in a performance as good as this. The theme, lovingly drawn from the Second Idyll for string quartet of Britten’s teacher, receives a virtuoso treatment, taken through a number of wildly differing dance forms before a powerful fugue and finale. The variations are sharply contrasted, with a crisp March at odds with the loving Romance that follows; the fulsome Wiener Walzer countered by the rush of a Moto perpetuo.

Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings works really well in this company. It is a work beginning with outward optimism but which ultimately falling under the shadow of the imminent Second World War. A busy first movement, its Baroque influences brought out by Wilson, is complemented by an inward looking but tender Andantino. Berkeley finds renewed energy in a quickfire Scherzo, but that is trumped by the closing Lento, which leaves a lasting impression, reflecting the anxiety felt as the 1930s drew to a close.

There is a good deal of positive energy in Bliss’ Music for Strings. Taking a lead from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905, the composer writes for a full string orchestra but often picks out a smaller group of soloists. The substantial three movements show a masterly command of the string orchestra, from the wide span of the vigorous first movement to the meaningful Romance that follows, with lovely rich contributions from violas and cellos. The third movement starts hesitantly, in the depths, but soon the light breaks through to an effervescent finale.

Does it all work?

Everything works here, thanks to the thoroughly assertive performances secured by Wilson. He is quite quick on the draw with the theme for Britten’s variations, maybe quicker than some would like, but the thrills and spills that follow make this one of the finest versions available. The Aria Italiana has all guns blazing in a wonderful display of precision and power, while the Funeral March has a searing and chilling clarity.

Successful though the Britten is, it is the Berkeley and Bliss that ultimately give the disc its importance. The Berkeley is keenly felt, positive in its fast music but anxious in its two slower movements and raising emotional questions in the fourth. Wilson catches its air of uncertainty at the world in which we live, as relevant now as it was then.

The Bliss has terrific drive in its faster music, which builds up a thoroughly convincing momentum while succeeding in bringing forward the writing for the chamber ensemble at the front. The textures are beautifully clear thanks to the Chandos recording, the quicker melodies’ punchy phrasing cutting through easily.

The Bridge Lament, though short, proves a mellow complement to the Britten, a chance for the listener to collect their thoughts while the Sinfonia play with a beautiful, muted sound.

Is it recommended?

In every way. John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London breathe new life into this music, and their programme is superbly judged to bring two neglected and very fine works back into contention. The cover, a painting of Bliss’s Pen Pits house by Edward Wadsworth, is the icing on the cake with its classic 1930s style.

For further information on this release, visit the Chandos website.

On record – Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – Escales: French Orchestral Works (Chandos)

Escales – French Orchestral Works

Chabrier España (1883)
Duruflé Trois Danses (1932)
Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale Op.31 (1871)
Debussy Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (1891-94)
Ibert Escales (1922)
Massenet Meditation from Thaïs (1894)
Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08)

Adam Walker (Debussy), Andrew Haveron (Massenet), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5252 [78’19”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 6-7 September 2019 (Trois Danses nos.1 & 3), 16-18 January 2019 (other works), Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Sinfonia of London, an orchestra from the 20th century given a new lease of life by conductor John Wilson, makes its second release for Chandos.

In fact we could term it as a series of Sinfonia of London buses, for you wait two decades and then two come along at once! The orchestra’s renaissance began with a stunning account of Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp last year, but now they turn their attention to France, and an imaginatively chosen program celebrating the elusive but immediately recognisable French orchestral sound.

What’s the music like?

A complete pleasure. Although irresistibly French, the music in the collection does remind us of the close bond between France and Spain, thanks to classics of the repertoire from Chabrier and Ravel and a relative rarity from Ibert.

Chabrier‘s España begins the collection and it is an absolute delight, a feel good piece given even more of a lift in this brilliant account. Wilson’s instincts for the stage come to the fore immediately, the bouncy rhythms and cheeky asides proving irresistible when presented with this much colour and warmth.

At the other end Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole is no less characterful. The atmospheric Prélude à la nuit ghosts in from silence, Wilson delighting in the orchestral textures and Ravel’s masterly sense of line. The persuasive rhythms of the Feria are expertly judged, the silky strings giving way as the music surges forward with terrific momentum.

Between these two gateposts are works of colour and élan. It is so good to see the inclusion of relative rarities in Duruflé’s Trois Danses, one of only two completed orchestral works in his output, and Ibert’s underrated Escales (Ports of Call) which gives the collection its name. The Duruflé sparkles in Wilson’s hands, violins caressing the longer melodies of the Divertissement, first dance of the three. Much of the composer’s relatively small output is for organ, which he effectively uses as his orchestra, but a persuasive Danse lente and thrilling Tambourin give us further proof of his prowess with large forces, harnessing the influence of Dukas. The latter features a particularly enticing saxophone solo, the recording indulging the colour and scope of Duruflé’s writing.

The Ibert, meanwhile, is a treat. Just over a minute into Escales‘ first movement, Palermo, there is what can only be described as a murmuration of violins, the music fluttering upwards in a bold sweep. Meanwhile Wilson secures a terrific drive to the description of the third ‘port’, Valencia, which ends with a flourish.

Before Escales comes a fresh faced account of Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, the piece that effectively changed the face of music on the eve of the 20th century. Wilson and his charges capture the sense of newness, but also the enchanting and harmonies, with seductive playing from flautist Adam Walker. By contrast the Méditation from Thaïs, Massenet’s most famous orchestral excerpt, is more conventional. It could have felt misplaced here in terms of mood and musical language, but orchestra leader Andrew Haveron invests it with plenty of affection and never overdoes the romantically inclined melodies.

The packed release also finds room for a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns. Le Rouet d’Omphale (The Spinning Wheel of Omphale) is a relatively early work and a great example of the composer’s melodic flair and ability for musical programming in thrall to Liszt. Wilson has its measure fully, pacing the music’s build ideally in arguably the finest modern recording since Charles Dutoit’s classic account with the Philharmonia in 1980.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is a brilliantly played and really well-chosen program, suiting both the curious listener and the familiar Francophile. What comes through most of all is the sheer enthusiasm and flair of the players, galvanized by Wilson in accounts that are both instinctive and incredibly well prepared.

From the opening notes of España it is immediately clear how this collection is going to go, and with the changes in mood suitably well planned and ordered – save arguably the Massenet – it is a listening experience you will want to return to often.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. This is music making as it should be, celebrating great orchestral music packed full of good tunes, instrumental colour and the ability to paint vivid pictures of its subjects. Wilson and his charges should be congratulated for an achievement which will surely land them with a glut of awards in the next few months – and only heightens the anticipation for their third release on Chandos, later this month, when they will return to Korngold for the Violin Concerto and String Sextet. In the meantime, make the most of this wonderful set of French fancies!

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here

On record – Louis Lortie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner – Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3 & 5 (Chandos)

Saint-Saëns
Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Op.73 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major Op.29 (1869)
Allegro appassionato in C sharp minor Op.70 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896)

Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Chandos CHAN 20038 [66’51”]

Producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Stephen Rinker

Recorded 13 January 2018 (Rhapsodie d’Auvergne), 20 & 25 February 2019 (other works), Media City UK, Salford, Manchester

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the second installment of Saint-Saëns piano concertos from Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It completes the cycle of five they have been recording for Chandos.

Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos tend to be overlooked in the concert hall, with only occasional performances for no.2 and no.5, which was written in part during a holiday in Egypt. Their neglect is unfortunate, as there is much to enjoy as the pieces unfold. The demands on the solo pianist may be considerable, but the rewards outweigh the effort required for sure.

What’s the music like?

This new release offers the Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major, still a relatively early work, where Saint-Saëns builds on the influence of Beethoven and Liszt to create a piece with memorable themes and unusual formal devices. We then move to his later period and the Piano Concerto no.5, the ‘Egyptian’. This is a daring piece in the sense that Saint-Saëns was not following the trend of modern music set by the post-Wagner composers, or the new sound worlds offered by Debussy and Ravel. Instead he was writing for the virtuoso pianist in a descriptive and positive sense – conventional but stretching the established ‘rules’ of the concertos. This piece is ultimately fun and packed with tunes, while asking the soloist to achieve some pretty difficult technical feats. There is a faint exoticism capturing the carefree mood of the composer on vacation.

Topping up the positive outlook are the Rapsodie d’Auvergne and the Allegro appassionato, both shorter pieces for piano and orchestra with a similarly sunny outlook. The Allegro appassionato has more drive, while the Rapsodie is a breezy piece for the great outdoors. As the booklet writer Roger Nichols observes, it is based on a tune the composer ‘heard sung by a peasant washing her clothes in a stream in the Auvergne. As such, it is possibly the only folksong from France that Saint-Saëns ever included in his music’.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely positive music, celebrating the combination of piano and orchestra with a good deal of energy.

The concertos are nicely balanced. The better known Fifth, stacked high with good tunes, finds Ed Gardner keen to develop its exotic air with the lush textures of the BBC Philharmonic strings in the first movement. There is a dramatic salvo to begin the second movement, where Lortie gets the melodic inflections just right, then an exotic minimalist passage towards the end, cutting to a real flight of fancy into the finale. Lortie gets a terrific substance to the sound of the lower end of the piano.

The Piano Concerto no.3 if anything fares even better, its status elevated well above the derivative thanks to the stress on its memorable themes. There is a heroic air to the piano part that Louis Lortie develops very nicely, and his commanding performance gives the piece its essential forward drive.

The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne is a bubbly piece, starting softly but gaining ground during the development of its theme. There are brief connections with Brahms before an effervescent and watery sequence, with excellent work in the right hand from Lortie.
Meanwhile the Allegro appassionato is a red-blooded affair very much in the vein of Liszt, asking the soloist for a few feats of athleticism while remaining close to the composer’s melodic heart.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is an ideal release for banishing any lingering winter blues! There may be some really good recordings around already of the concertos, thanks to Stephen Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (Hyperion), and looking further back the classic 1980s recordings made by Pascal Rogé and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit (Decca).

These sparkling new versions, beautifully recorded, offer a great deal of passion and panache, and at the very least take their place alongside the best..

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here