Recording of the Week,
John Wilson and Sinfonia of London perform Respighi's Roman Trilogy
After their breathtakingly impressive recordings of Korngold's Symphony in F sharp and a selection of French orchestral works, I can't think of a better choice for John Wilson's third album with Sinfonia of London than Respighi's triptych depicting the city of Rome through the ages. With dazzlingly inventive dashes of orchestration and demandingly intricate writing across all sections, these three pieces are the perfect vehicle to showcase the sensational virtuosity on offer from this ensemble.
Somewhat unusually, Wilson places Roman Festivals (the least-known of the three) first in the running order, but as soon as it starts it's immediately clear why he has done so: with an urgent, dramatic pace, the opening outburst grabs you by the throat and simply refuses to let go. Depicting a gladiatorial contest at the Circus Maximus, it's full of shrieking woodwind, plaintive strings, and biting trombones. It's all expertly recorded, with pleasing stereo effects as the off-stage trumpet fanfares contrast with their on-stage colleagues. There are plenty of wonderfully characterised moments later in the piece too, such as during the Epiphany celebrations of the final movement, where after some entertainingly vulgar vibrato from the trumpets as they imitate the wheezings of a barrel organ we are treated to an agreeably glissando-laden trombone solo depicting the merry antics of an inebriated reveller.
Although there are multiple instances where the whole orchestra screams in a ferocious frenzy, these episodes would lose their impact were they not surrounded by more nuanced playing. There are so many delicate touches and changing moods in all three of these pieces, and Wilson captures each one totally. Even more so than all the loud passages, what amazes me about this orchestra is the quality of their quiet playing: from the hauntingly crepuscular conclusion of Fountains of Rome to the almost impossibly hushed clarinet solos in the Janiculum movement of Pines of Rome, the care taken over these subtle details elevates these performances tremendously.
Even when performing at such extremely low dynamics, there remains a richness to the string sonorities that is highly beguiling. This is most evident at the beginning of the Catacombs movement of Pines, where the chords for divided violas, cellos, and basses are played so softly and yet without any loss of clarity or tone. Every note registers beautifully but you still feel the satisfying vibrations of the double basses as they descend to their lowest notes. The upper strings get their turn too, with the silkiest of contributions to accompany the off-stage trumpet solo in the same movement.
As a brass player, I'm all too familiar with the temptation to be rather overenthusiastic on the dynamics front in the closing movement of Pines, but if it gets too loud too soon then there's nowhere to go and it merely becomes a tiresome cacophony. Wilson judges it just right, keeping a lid on it for long enough that the ominous tread of the steadily approaching Roman army as they march down the Appian Way is truly menacing and quite unsettling, yet there is sufficient release towards the end that you don't feel let down or underwhelmed. As I mentioned above, it's all so handsomely recorded that you can even perceive moments such as the addition, just before the off-stage brass play their first fanfare, of the organ pedal to the bass line, and as in Festivals the spatial separation between the various brass groups hits home superbly. It's a thrilling culmination to yet another phenomenal album from John Wilson and Sinfonia of London.