Recording of the Week,
John Wilson conducts Korngold's Symphony in F sharp
If you managed to catch the Warner Brothers tribute concert at the BBC Proms earlier this month, then you’ll be aware of John Wilson’s pedigree when it comes to the music of Korngold, and so it will come as no surprise when I tell you that his new recording of a selection of the composer’s concert works is something of a stunner.
The Sinfonia of London also carries a tremendous film music heritage, having in previous incarnations recorded many soundtracks including Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo and Danny Elfman’s Batman. It was resurrected and re-formed by Wilson last year from the top London session players, and if this first offering is anything to go by, he has assembled a magnificent ensemble indeed.
The main work is the Symphony in F sharp, and right from the start, with brooding, restless chords from bassoons, marimba, piano, and strings, it's clear that Wilson is alive to the nuances of Korngold's orchestration; the whole performance is packed full of classy solos, from a quietly searching clarinet in the opening moments, to a ravishing solo flute a few minutes later. Although of course this isn’t actually a disc of film music, the Hollywood sheen of the strings is highly pleasing, and their unanimity of articulation in the more fiendish passages is one of the most notable things about this performance, not least the clarity of attack that they bring to their semiquavers in the last movement.
Clocking in at just under 45 minutes, this must be one of the swiftest accounts on record (Previn and the LSO, for example, come in at 53 minutes), but it never felt rushed, and on the contrary Wilson's tempos provide a sense of purpose that I found invigorating. The second movement particularly moves along at quite a pace; almost certainly the fastest I have ever heard this movement. It’s a testament to the skill of the Sinfonia of London that it never sounds TOO fast, but instead trips along with a lightness of touch that is most impressive. Even when it comes to the horns’ big “superhero” theme about a minute into the movement, Wilson doesn’t allow the pace to sag, always with his eye on the finishing line.
This drive is carried through even into the slow movement, where there’s a forward direction that avoids turgidity without sacrificing any of the profundity. I said earlier that this isn't film music, but this movement does incorporate material from Korngold's score for the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as the eponymous pair of lovers. Korngold wrote some stirringly impassioned music for their doomed relationship, and if you know the film then it will be hard to shake off the association, but the important thing here is how Wilson makes the movement work under its own symphonic logic, with some satisfyingly dolorous trombones and ardently expressive violin solos from leader Andrew Haveron.
Accompanying the symphony is a pair of works written in 1953 as a commission from the American School Orchestras Association: Theme and Variations, and Straussiana. The latter work is a charmingly nostalgic homage to Korngold's home city of Vienna, and is essentially a medley of music by Johann Strauss II. There's an easy, relaxed manner to this performance that shows that Wilson gets the style completely, making other recordings (not that there are that many others out there!) seem stiff and humourless in comparison.
The works are nowhere near as technically demanding as the symphony, but nevertheless there is plenty of interesting material, and I doubt the Theme and Variations has been treated to a more accomplished performance than this, with Wilson taking just as much care over the corners as he does in the symphony. If this highly impressive offering is the debut of his new ensemble, then I can't wait to hear what delights they have planned for the future!