For the past four years I have been extolling the virtues of recordings made for Chandos by conductor John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm as shown by the national music awards and accolades they have garnered. Wilson’s breadth of musical expertise and enthusiasm, his hand-picked band with the cream of London’s orchestras and star freelances, Chandos’s splendiferous production and high-definition SACD sound as the cherry on top of this already delicious confection. Wilson made his name with sell-out concerts and best-selling CDs as conductor and arranger of music from Hollywood films and Broadway musicals with his eponymous John Wilson Orchestra. He goes back to his musical roots in ‘Hollywood Sound Stage’ (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★★★ with eight tracks from the golden age of cinema. St Augustine’s Church Kilburn may not be as big as MGM’s Culver City studio but its spacious, lustrous acoustic sounds perfect. The five minutes of Raksin’s theme to classic film noir ‘Laura’ will tell you all you need to know about the Sinfonia’s playing. Star trombonist Andy Wood’s sinuous, mellifluous playing sounds as sexy and mysterious as the movie’s femme fatale. Likewise Michael Lovett’s gorgeous yet tender trumpet playing in Johnny Mandel’s theme from ‘The Sandpiper’ better known as the song ‘The Shadow Your Smile’. Korngold’s overture to ‘The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex’ is despatched with all the dash and vigour of its swashbuckling screen hero Errol Flynn. Herbert Stothart’s score for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – to which ‘Over the Rainbow’ is the leitmotif – is a brilliant and welcome rarity with a hi-fi tornado. Star track is Wilson’s own suite from Max Steiner’s soundtrack for the Bette Davis melodrama ‘Now, Voyager’ – “one of the most effective, enriching scores ever written for a movie, writes Wilson. I dare you to stay dry-eyed at the climax. After discs devoted to the music of Korngold, Ravel, Bridge, Respighi and Dutilleux, Wilson turns to Rachmaninoff (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★★★ with equally successful results. I’ve not heard a finer recording of the under-rated Symphony No.3. It’s not as audience-friendly as its predecessor – it lacks the attention-grabbing big tune – but it’s a beautiful and dynamic work with the composer’s motto theme put to ingenious and brilliant use. Wilson both observes the first movement repeat and resists the temptation to tamper with the orchestration and pull the music about – unlike Jansons in his St Petersburg recording. The Sinfonia play with suavity and intense romanticism – I’d love to hear them in the ‘Symphonic Dances’. In ‘The Isle of the Dead’ I prefer the slightly distanced sound and darker tone palette used by Andrew Litton’s Bergen recording (Bis also SACD), but Wilson’s has much to recommend it, especially it’s impressive inky-black bass power in the ‘Dies Irae’ allusion. The orchestral ‘Vocalise’ is a delicious bonne bouche between the two main courses.
Arnold: Collins, BBC Philharmonic / Gamba (Chandos) ★★★★★
A hugely enjoyable disc in which conductor Rumon Gamba and the excellent BBC Philharmonic once again show their feel for Arnold’s unique blend of classical and popular, ear-tickling orchestration and sometimes raucous good humour. The short tone poem ‘Larch Trees’ (1943) disappeared for forty years after its premiere perhaps but it’s an enticingly sensitive, disturbingly sombre work. The Divertimento No.2, composed for the National Youth Orchestra, is rumbustious good fun as is the ‘Commonwealth Christmas Overture’, a colourful ports-of-call travelogue with a catchy Caribbean calypso interlude. The ‘Padstow Lifeboat’ is a hoot – literally – with its zany off-key orchestral foghorn. Arnold’s Cornish drinking pals from the rescue service loved it. Michael Collins brings flair and agility to the Clarinet Concerto No.1, utilizing only strings, pleasing but lightweight. The ‘Philharmonic Concerto’ (1976) has been grossly neglected – an emotionally ambiguous, mysterious piece with its ‘firework display’ extroversion undercut by a menacing, minatory middle movement.