Sinfonia of London
John Wilson conductor


An odd sort of programme? Well, no. The link is that Berkeley received informal lessons from Ravel and Pounds from Berkeley, so the subtitle of the notes is ‘mentors and pupils’, and the pupils manifestly inherited the fastidious skills of their teachers.  And if John Wilson is in charge we know there will be something special on offer – as anyone who has enjoyed the recent issue of his ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ will readily confirm.

In the event, as regards Berkeley’s Divertimento, I find myself agreeing with the critic of the Musical Times who commented, after the first broadcast performance in 1943, that ‘(it) merely held our interest without engaging our feelings very deeply’. It does not sound very ‘British’ to me – a feature more easily recognised than described. However, at least it can be said the rendition here is as neat as the fabric of the music.

The first two symphonies of Adam Pounds (b.1954) were premièred in 1985 and 2019, the third following in 2021. It was written in response to the COVID restrictions imposed from April 2020 and as the notes say captures the ‘sadness, humour, determination and defiance which everyone faced at the time – not least musicians’.  The idiom is approachable tonal-dissonant, and markedly eloquent in its expression, with vivid scoring and craftsmanship.

Unease haunts the first movement which is followed by a sarcastic sort of waltz recalling one of Shostakovich’s moods, a ‘dance macabre’ indeed, ostensibly exhibiting a gaiety to which it is not entitled.  This is followed by a marvellous Elegy (Homage to Bruckner). Late Bruckner was quite advanced for its time and this movement develops most effectively, and legitimately, into what the older man might have written 120 years later.  There is here also, perhaps by chance, the ghost of Josef Suk’s Asrael (Angel of Death) in the malevolently stalking pizzicatos.

The finale reverts back to quasi-Shostakovich in its march-like invention and its bitter and defiant fist-shaking attitude, as it reprises reworkings of earlier material.

Some feel that there is too much ‘misery drama’ on TV at the moment, and the above may sound as though this is a musical equivalent.  This may be so, but the music is utterly compelling, holds the attention with a glue-like grip, and thus, this issue is strongly recommended.

The symphony is dedicated to John Wilson and his Sinfonia, and they repay the honour with a performance of searing conviction and intensity.

Review by Geoffrey Atkinson