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Escales
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
España (1883) [6:03]
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986)
Trois danses, Op. 6 (1932) [21:15]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31 (1871) [7:26]
Achille-Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-4) [9:12]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales (1922) [14:15]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation from Thaïs (1894) [5:34]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) [14:34]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2019, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London
CHANDOS CHSA5252 SACD [79:05]

Everything conductor John Wilson touches seems to turn to gold – witness his last disc of Korngold (CHANDOS CHSA5220), also with the new/old Sinfonia of London. Back in 2009 he was hosting the Hallé’s Viennese night with great wit and superb musicianship (I was there). Now he’s a huge hit at the proms - there’s been Copland with the BBC Philharmonic, Richard Rodney Bennett with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Eric Coates, again with the BBC Philharmonic.

And he has a new orchestra. As well as the John Wilson orchestra, which has shown that authentic period performance can include film musicals, there is now the Sinfonia of London – with some overlap among the string players, I understand. The super-group takes its name from the sessions band of London-based players of the 1950s and 60s, famed for its recordings of film scores.

Whatever else, this latest album should be appearing at every hi-fi demonstration. It has an almost supernatural clarity and finesse, while reproducing the music with power and precision. It is vivid and spacious, while remaining totally natural.

But the highest of fi comes only with the most musically accurate and detailed performances. This latest album features seven pieces of French music, including the titular Escales (Ports of Call) by Ibert, written in 1922. Until now, I’ve been extremely satisfied with Neeme Järvi’s version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, also issued by Chandos, five years ago (CHSA 5168), as part of a complete survey of Ibert’s orchestral music. The piece is very Hollywoodian – or rather, given the relative time-scale, Hollywood is very Ibertian, and John Wilson knows all about that. So his version has shinier, silkier strings, and bass drums that go down to your socks. It’s a close-run thing, however, between the oboes of Christopher Bouwman (Järvi) and Juliana Koch (Wilson).

The revelation for me was Trois Danses, op.6, by Maurice Duruflé, written ten years later. There’s his Requiem, of course, but after that? I would have liked Chandos to do for Duruflé what they did for Ibert – a disc of his complete orchestral works. Sadly it’s not going to happen; there aren’t enough. Apparently, he wrote only two - this and the Andante and Scherzo, op.8.

His teacher was Dukas, who also didn’t write very much, even if what he did write was unforgettable, and there’s plainly quite a bit of Ravel in there. The third movement, Tambourin, revels in chattering woodwind and some excellent string and brass climaxes.

From an earlier period of French music comes Le Rouet D’Omphale by Camille Saint-Saëns (1871). I consider Saint-Saëns unjustly neglected, and this vividly characterised performance has an impact beyond its reputation.

You can’t do a CD of French music without including Debussy, of course, and he’s represented here by Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs is similarly languid but passionate.

The album opens with Chabrier’s Espaňa. Perry Como destroyed this work for me with his "Hot diggity, dog ziggity, boom/What you do to me/When you're holding me tight." For, of course, the Chabrier work is the melody of that 1956 popular song. But the disc ends with Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole, which shows off the Sinfonia of London’s ability to bring finesse and delicacy to a work as well as doing 0-60 in a second.

One warning; you might want to make sure the neighbours are out when you put this disc on. It has a very wide dynamic range, but every decibel is worth hearing.

Chris Ramsden

Previous review: Stephen Barber



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