Barbican Centre *****


Over half a century I have never reviewed a concert as amazing as this, not even from the CBSO in Symphony Hall under its succession of exciting conductors.

And this was in the notoriously difficult acoustic of the Barbican, almost entirely mastered by John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London, in which a packed audience rose at the end of a remarkable evening to applaud with a unanimous standing ovation, grumpy me included.

The Sinfonia of London was decades ago a scratch recording orchestra. Now John Wilson has revamped it into an ensemble of enthusiastic, willing players, and it is obvious they would give their all for him, as witnessed in this programme of works written within little over two decades in the mid-20th century.

Walton’s Scapino Overture kicked off, both bristling and lyrical (such gentle interchanges between solo cello and winds), and crisply detailed.  Ravel’s three-movement song-cycle Sheherazade followed, soloist Alice Coote obviously engaging so immersively in these sensual settings, but her projection not always coming across in this unfocussed auditorium (neither did  excellent string soli throughout the concert – flautist Charlotte Ashton deservedly fared much better in her many solo contributions).

Then came a revelation, Gershwin’s American in Paris in the composer’s original orchestration, and without the cuts imposed by his copyright-sniffing publishers. Wilson promised us “at least 86 bars of music you’ve never heard before”, and these included a massive repetition of the score’s huge climax, trumpets descanting triumphantly, and a dream-like coda, solo flute to the fore. Patricia, widow of the great Gene Kelly of the wonderful eponymous film, was in the audience to share in the emotional response to this crisply detailed account. I do hope a Chandos recording is in the offing.

It was a treat to hear Dutilleux’ early ballet score for Le Loup, heavy with resonances of Stravinsky, Ravel and, at times, Respighi, a sonic onslaught (what an orgasm moment in “La chambre nuptial”!), tempered with discriminating delicacy in a score with easily identifiable motifs.

We ended with another revelation, the original ballet version of Bolero by Ravel, the composer who had in fact been quite a thread through most of this programme. Here we had expanded percussion (two castanettists, antiphonal snare-drums) in a performance which began at a  decibel-level lower than imperceptible and gradually grew under Wilson’s flexible, baton-less hands through almost unbearable tension, via sturdy, determinedly unanimous string pizzicato, to a climax of blazing intensity.

We had listened, silent and breathless. And then we erupted.

Christopher Morley

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