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.