John Ireland was something of a child prodigy, entering the Royal College of Music at the age of fourteen. There he studied piano, organ and composition (under Charles Villiers Stanford). He quickly progressed to significant positions as an organist, whilst continuing to pursue his interests as a composer. The Forgotten Rite, from 1913, is one of his earliest orchestral compositions, and was premièred by Sir Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall. The symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dun was inspired by the Dorset countryside – Thomas Hardy country – a landscape that exerted a lifelong influence on Ireland. While it was commissioned for the national Brass Band Championships in 1932, Ireland later arranged the central two movements of A Downland Suite for strings. The first and last movements were later arranged by his pupil Geoffrey Bush. The overture Satyricon was one of Ireland’s final large-scale works, and is based upon texts by the Roman writer Gaius (or, in some sources, Titus) Petronius Arbiter, a courtier of Nero. A London Overture and the Epic March were both commissioned by the BBC – the latter as a moralebooster during World War II. It was during this period that Ireland orchestrated The Holy Boy – a piano piece composed on Christmas Day in 1913. John Wilson and Sinfonia of London present these works with care and conviction, revealing the great quality of this unjustly neglected composer.
Sinfonia of London and John Wilson turn to Germany and three outstanding works for string orchestra.
Franz Schreker’s Intermezzo, the oldest piece here, was composed in 1900, before Schreker’s rise to fame in the opera houses of Germany and Austria, but shows strong indications of what was to follow. Korngold composed the Symphonische Serenade following his return to Vienna from Hollywood after the Second World War. It was composed shortly before he wrote his Symphony in F sharp, the piece which marked Sinfonia of London’s relaunch under John Wilson, and won a BBC Music Magazine Award 2020. Korngold effortlessly conjures a vivid range of colours and textures from his large forces (32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 basses) in a work that explores the virtuosity of the players to the full.
Composed in 1945, as a reaction to the horrors of the war, and the desecration of German culture, Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings seems to look backwards to the German romantic tradition – a trait even more evident in his Four Last Songs, of 1948. The moving final passage, marked ‘In Memoriam’, leaves the listener to contemplate in silence.
Ravel – Orchestral works
Following the orchestra’s acclaimed live debut at the BBC Proms 2021, John Wilson and Sinfonia of London release their next studio album, featuring the music of French composer and master orchestrator Maurice Ravel.
This album is notable for being the premiere recording of the complete original ballets of both Boléro and Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), in a new edition by François Dru, general editor of the Ravel Edition. Ravel’s dark and compelling La Valse, which featured in the orchestra’s televised 2021 BBC Prom performance, opens the disc. Ravel’s orchestrations of his own piano works complete the programme: Valse nobles et sentimentales, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Alborada del gracioso, with its colourful illustration of Spanish sounds and culture.
Dutilleux – Le Loup
*WINNER OF BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE ORCHESTRAL AWARD 2022*
Following the success of English Music for Strings, Sinfonia of London turns its attention to the music of Henri Dutilleux. His ballet Le Loup was composed as a commission for Roland Petit’s dance company and premiered in Paris in March 1953. Rarely recorded – this is the first recording by a non-French orchestra – the work unfolds in three tableaux and tells a convoluted tale of a bridegroom who jilts his bride (to run away with a gypsy) by persuading her that he has been changed into a wolf. Over time she discovers that the wolf is real, but her feelings turn from terror to love and when the alarmed villagers hunt the wolf, she defends him and dies at his side.
The album is completed by three world premier recordings of new orchestrations (by Kenneth Hesketh) of wind solos written for the Paris Conservatoire in the 1940s. Both the Sarabande et Cortege and Sonate pour hautbois are virtuosic tours de force for their soloists, as is the Sonatine pour flute, which displays the lyricism, agility, and sparkling incisive qualities of the flue in what became Dutilleux’s most-performed work.
English Music for Strings
English Music for Strings, featuring music by Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Sir Lennox Berkeley and Sir Arthur Bliss, is the fourth recording from Sinfonia of London with John Wilson. The release pays homage to Sir John Barbirolli’s revered 1963 disc, English String Music.
During the 1930s, Bliss, Britten, and Berkeley all contributed major works to the repertoire for string orchestra, following in the footsteps of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. They are joined on this album by Frank Bridge, whose Lament was composed during the First World War.
Bliss composed Music for Strings after he had completed the film score for Korda’s Things to Come, driven by his desire to compose a piece of ‘pure music’, expressing his own ideas rather than those of others. Commissioned in May 1937 by Boyd Neel for the Salzburg Festival that summer, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was composed at great speed, and helped to establish the young composer’s international reputation. Dedicated to his teacher, Frank Bridge, the theme is taken from the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet.
Lennox Berkeley composed his Serenade for Strings while at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, where he was living with Britten in 1938/39. By the time of its completion, the nation was at war and the music seems to reflect the composer’s anxious mood as the world faced an uncertain future.
Britten – The Turn of the Screw
*WINNER OF THE CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT*
Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw has become notorious as at once the most stylish and elusively ambiguous of all nineteenth-century ghost stories. In June 1932, the eighteen-year-old Benjamin Britten heard a radio adaptation of James’s story and noted in his diary that it was ‘wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie & scary’. He read the novella for himself in January the following year, telling his diary that he still found it ‘glorious & eerie’ and judging it to be an ‘incredible masterpiece’.
His subsequent operatic setting is unequivocally a masterpiece, and is here seen in a first-class production made for television with an outstanding cast led by Robert Murray and Rhian Lois, accompanied by Sinfonia of London, and conducted by John Wilson. Opera production is by Dominic Best, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson. Originally planned as a run of live performances, subsequently cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the production was quickly transformed into a film for television with spectacular results.
‘Filmed at Wilton’s Music Hall and available online, a staging of Britten’s opera has been reimagined as a very effective film, with superb performances, and John Wilson alert to the score’s beauty and terror.’ **** Tim Ashley, The Guardian.
Respighi – Roman Trilogy
*WINNER OF BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE AWARD 2021*
Following widespread critical acclaim for their first two recordings, including a BBC Music Magazine Award 2020, John Wilson and Sinfonia of London turn their artistry to Respighi’s Roman Trilogy for their third release.
With its dynamic score calling for a vast array of instruments, including every imaginable piece of percussion plus four-handed piano, organ, mandolin and even a recorded nightingale, Respighi’s outstandingly evocative Roman Trilogy – Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals – is one of the most lavish and exuberant works in the repertoire, all captured on this disc in gleaming Chandos sound.
Escales – French Orchestral Works
The second recording from Sinfonia of London explores the unique sound world of French orchestral music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The programme juxtaposes well-known favourites, such as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs with pieces far more rarely heard, for example Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale.
Evoking the ‘exoticism’ of Spain or North Africa, as was the fashion in French music of this era, all these works share the intricate, detailed orchestration that defines the Impressionist style.
Korngold – Symphony in F sharp
The disc which marked the relaunch of Sinfonia of London in 2018 features three works by Korngold. Born in Brünn, Austria-Hungary, and as a pianist and composer Korngold was a child prodigy. Both Mahler and Strauss were impressed by the young musician, and recommended he study with Zemlinsky rather than attending music conservatory. In 1934 Korngold emigrated with his family to the USA, where he went on to revolutionise the sound of Hollywood, composing scores for films such as The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
While he is still most famous as a film composer, over the last twenty years his reputation as a concert composer has been completely re-evaluated. His only Symphony, composed between 1947 and 1952, was dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the premiere in Vienna 1954 was under-rehearsed and not a success, and the work remained neglected until Rudolph Kempe came across a set of score and parts in Munich and resurrected it.
Theme and Variations and Straussiana were both commissioned by the Association of American School Orchestras, but Korngold makes no concessions to youth in his writing. Straussiana also reflects his lifelong love of the music of Johan Strauss II.