Sinfonia of London
John Wilson conductor


John Wilson is one of the most exciting conductors around, and as usual he is here fully supported by his excellent Sinfonia of London.  If your main interest in this disc is the VW and the Elgar, you would be highly unlikely to be disappointed.  These are quite simply magnificent renditions of familiar masterpieces.

The VW comes across as fresh and new, the excitement engendered is almost as though we are hearing this music for the first time, with everything perfectly paced and balanced.  The liner notes contain a quote I have not heard before, from Sir Herbert Brewer, then organist of Gloucester Cathedral where the première was given in 1910: ‘(It is) a queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea’.  Fair enough, I suppose.

The performance of the Elgar is every bit as good.  The sheer exuberance (which of course starts with Elgar) is exhilarating.  What I will call the ‘striding theme’ proceeds as if in seven-league boots, and the ‘devil of a fugue’ is suitably satanic.  Everybody here is having a wonderful time and the enthusiasm is infectious.

Howells’s Concerto is far less well-known of course. Much of his choral and keyboard (clavichord, piano, organ) works, and Anglican church music is highly praiseworthy, but his concerted music has, to me, always comes across as somewhat congested.

He claimed that in his concerto he was trying to reach ‘a unity of the two supreme fellow English composers (meaning the foregoing) many of us have seen and known in our own time’. An admirable sentiment indeed, but what is missing here is the absence of much that is actually memorable.  There is much vigour and striving, but it just comes across as an energetic muddle. Things are not helped either where one of the tender moments in the piece – the beginning of the slow movement – the balance in the recording does not bring out the rather lovely theme, one has to wait for a fuller exposition later to find out what is happening.

Needless to say the performance here is fully committed, and, of course, Howells enthusiasts are entitled to disagree with the above negative observations.

The final item is Delius’s Late swallows in Fenby’s arrangement of the slow movement of the string quartet. It is pleasant enough, but my feeling, after listening to it, is not much more than ‘is that it?’

Review by Geoffrey Atkinson