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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphony Op.40 (1947-52) [44.34]
Theme and Variations Op.42 (1953) [7.47]
Straussiana (1953) [6.37]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London
SACD/CD Hybrid, Stereo/Surround 5.0, reviewed in surround

Korngold’s Symphony is a very fine work which passes the acid test of getting better the more one listens. The work, composed between 1947 and 1952, though using some ideas from as early as 1919, is a serious and large scale conception. To create such a work in the post-war years when serialism and atonality were all the rage was asking for a negative critical reception. It was poorly treated by players and effectively buried until 1972 when Rudolph Kempe unearthed it from the Munich Philharmonic library and recorded it for RCA. The post-war period was a time of symphonic casualties when some outstanding composers were ignored in the name of fashion. One such is William Alwyn’s Symphony No.3 but it is far from the only example in Britain alone: (one thinks of symphonies by William Wordsworth, Robert Still, Daniel Jones, Malcolm Arnold, Edmund Rubbra and more recently Robert Simpson, all neglected).

Korngold’s work is powerful and nostalgic often rising to great heights of lyricism and of drama. It is not as angry a piece as Walton’s passionate, pre-war 1st Symphony but it occupies the same sort of emotional space. As always with this composer one is reminded of the world of Richard Strauss and it is true he learned much from his older contemporary, who in turn was much taken by a talent that also impressed Puccini and Mahler. Had Korngold not been driven by political events to leave Europe for the USA, along with so many other famous names, one suspects musical history might have looked very different. Just as we make a space for late Strauss and for late Rachmaninov, we should allow late Korngold his space too. This is a superb piece. The notes by Korngold biographer Brendan Carroll are excellently detailed giving a useful guide to listening and to the background of all the works. For a further look at this symphony’s history and recorded catalogue, Music Web International’s own Ian Lace should be read (review).

The remaining two works are not up to this standard and do sound like chips off the workbench, written, as they were, for school orchestras. At least they are additions to the recorded catalogue and performed like this, way better than any school orchestra could hope to achieve, they are entertaining enough.

The Sinfonia of London is a session orchestra, the third to adopt the name. Historically the second Sinfonia made at least one great recording, of Elgar and Vaughan Williams conducted by Barbirolli. That is possibly one of the finest ever classical issues and still stands tall nearly 60 years since it was recorded in 1963. It is good to see that the reformed group of players look set to add further lustre to the name. John Wilson has added a valuable issue to his fast-growing discography. He proves yet again, the Copland series was splendid, that he is a major talent in the general conducting world, not just a light music director. Each movement from the dramatic first movement through the driving scherzo and into the moving adagio is played with insight and virtuosity. The fourth movement is a proper finale combining references to the earlier movements with new material. Very satisfying.

The recording by Ralph Couzens and his team is astonishingly good. I am tempted to say it is the best orchestral surround recording I’ve heard, so good that I emailed him for more details. He was very forthcoming, telling me that the technology was unchanged but the venue was one that they have not used for several decades. “We have not recorded in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn for many, many years, the last time (1970's) it was either chamber music or the organ we were recording. Turning the orchestra side-on made it quite compact and full on sound wise, but at the same time the church is so tall and long we got a lot of space which I used for the ambience mics. The acoustic of that church gives us plenty of clarity but at the same time usable reverberation.” The photographs in the excellent booklet show this unusual arrangement. Apparently they have just completed another project with even more expanded forces and Couzens indicated that he intended to continue using St Augustine’s. I did not gather what John Wilson and his reformed Sinfonia of London were recording for future release but it is one to look out for in the new year and even more are slated to follow. As an enthusiast for SACD I can only express my pleasure that Chandos, and come to that BIS, are not withdrawing from the cutting edge. If only names like Decca and DG showed the same attitude instead of retreating from hi-res surround and marking time with the nearly 40 year-old stereo CD format.

Dave Billinge
Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)

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