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Recording of the Week, John Wilson and Sinfonia of London perform music for strings by English composers

As John Wilson told me when I spoke to him on an episode of the Presto podcast last year, the first LP he ever bought was John Barbirolli's much-lauded 1963 record of music for string orchestra by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, including the former's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and the latter's Introduction and Allegro. Two years ago, Wilson and Sinfonia of London brought out their own, equally extraordinary album of English music for strings, which did not duplicate any of Barbirolli's repertoire, and they have now followed this up with a second volume which does actually overlap with Barbirolli by including both pieces mentioned above, albeit in a different context (which I will explain shortly).

John WilsonIt can be tricky when writing about these Sinfonia of London albums to keep finding interesting synonyms for "excellent", but at the risk of repeating myself yet again I must express my amazement at the quality and beauty of the string sound that Wilson achieves with his orchestra. The initial chord of the Vaughan Williams shimmers in a way that few other recordings can match, giving way to the sumptuously rich sound of divided violas and cellos and later to restlessly surging violins. Then, just when you might think the players have shown us all they have to offer, along comes the entry of the second orchestra, performing with mutes and minimal vibrato to conjure the most ethereal sound, like a ghostly viol consort playing in the distance.

The same range of timbres is evident throughout Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, from the impassioned drama of the opening material to the flawless clarity and precision of the entire string section. There are several passages that involve repeated semiquavers for bars on end, which can be tricky to make sense of and to shape into a phrase, but Wilson imbues them with a most impressive sense of direction and purpose.

As magnificent as these accounts are, the highlight of the album has to be the other major piece included (which provides the context I referred to earlier). Vaughan Williams's Fantasia was written in 1910 to precede a performance in Gloucester Cathedral of Elgar's oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius. In the audience that evening was a seventeen-year-old Herbert Howells, who was so struck by it that (along with similarly-overwhelmed fellow student Ivor Gurney) he wandered the streets of Gloucester all night, unable to sleep with excitement. Within days of this experience, Howells also heard Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for the first time, and commented in later life what a profound impact both pieces had had on him. It is entirely fitting, therefore, that Wilson should pair those works with one of Howells's own contributions to the genre, the Concerto for String Orchestra from 1938.

With the arresting opening chords, the searching melancholy of the slow movement lamenting not only the death of Elgar but also the loss of Howells's nine-year-old son Michael, and the propulsive energy of the last movement, it's a stirring, thrilling account of a work that deserves to be thought of on the same level as its companions. The influence of those two composers is audible throughout, not least the closing few seconds, which directly reference the ending of Elgar's own piece (although whereas Elgar's final chord is played pizzicato, Howells cheekily makes his arco instead). The thought that Wilson puts into programming these albums is quite remarkable, and even with the final item on the album, an arrangement for string orchestra by Eric Fenby of the slow movement of Delius's String Quartet, there is a link back to Barbirolli, as it was he who suggested that Fenby should orchestrate the movement, entitled Late Swallows, to mark the centenary in 1962 of Delius's birth.

When reminiscing about the impact of Elgar and Vaughan Williams on his formative years as a young composer, Howells noted "the power and beauty of strings in consort". After listening to this new album from John Wilson and Sinfonia of London, I hope you will agree with me that such an observation is hard to deny.

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