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Recording of the Week, John Wilson conducts orchestral works by Ravel

Fans of John Wilson and Sinfonia of London will no doubt recall Escales, a scintillating album from 2020 of French orchestral music including an atmospheric account of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole. For their latest release they return to Ravel with a dazzling collection of pieces including La valse and Pavane pour une infante défunte alongside premiere recordings of the original versions of Ma Mère l'Oye and Boléro, plus Ravel's own orchestrations of two of his piano works, Alborada del gracioso and Valses nobles et sentimentales.

John WilsonIt has become something of a cliché to mention Ravel's skill as an orchestrator, and yet I feel I must do so, especially when all of the tiniest details are brought out as tellingly as they are here. This is particularly true in Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose): whether it be the distant sound of the muted horn calls in the first few bars, the magical cadenza for harp and celeste towards the end of the fourth tableau, or the final Apotheosis which moves from the most extraordinarily hushed string tone to a satisfyingly radiant climax, every last nuance is magnificently realised.

It is this quality of the quiet string playing that elevates this album: I recently had the pleasure of speaking to John Wilson about this recording (full interview to be published on our site soon!) and he talked about how important that was to him, and how much time they spend in rehearsals getting that just right. In his words, it's "pianissimo playing but with fortissimo intensity".

Both Ma Mère l'Oye and Boléro are given in their original versions, although the differences are largely restricted to modest changes of orchestration, including the somewhat surprising inclusion of triangle and castanets towards the end of Boléro! The most interesting divergence comes also in Boléro, where instead of just one snare drum performing the familiar rhythm throughout, Ravel actually asks for it to be alternated between two instruments, one placed on the left side of the orchestra and one on the right. It's a subtle but intriguing alteration, and the antiphonal nature of this back-and-forth between the two players is perfectly captured by the Chandos engineers.

This recording clarity also reveals details that are normally lost: more than usual, for instance, I was able to register the crucial role that the harp plays in spicing up many of the harmonies. Mostly, though, what comes across is a real sense of personality behind each of the various solos: from the reserved directness of the flute and the exotic piquancy of the oboe d'amore to the swagger of the trombone and the cheekiness of the tenor saxophone, it all coheres to produce an account that is hypnotic in its effect.

All that said, for me the highlight of the album has to be La valse, offering a dizzying kaleidoscope of shifting moods and colours. From complicated string harmonics to flutter-tongued flutes and raucous brass, it's a fiendishly difficult work to perform, and yet with this ensemble it comes across as nothing other than deftly effortless. There's a beautiful sheen on the strings, not least the melodic entry of muted upper strings about two minutes into the piece, which in Wilson's hands becomes a quite exceptional moment: the mutes bring about a husky, veiled, even old-fashioned character to the string tone, as if we are suddenly transported to a 1940s dance hall with the music emanating from a gramophone record in the corner of the room.

The passage in question becomes even more remarkable: at Ravel's request, the string players gradually remove their mutes one by one, the aural equivalent of watching a classic movie in black and white that is slowly but surely blossoming into Glorious Technicolor before our very eyes (and ears!). It's almost sinfully ravishing and utterly beguiling. At one point during my conversation with Wilson, he referred to Sinfonia of London as "the best players in the land". On the evidence presented here, I can do nothing other than agree with him wholeheartedly.

and other orchestral works

Sinfonia of London, John Wilson

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Sinfonia of London, John Wilson

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC