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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 in A, Op.31 (1871) [7:26]
Achille-Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891–94) [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 (1907–08) [14:34]
Adam Walker (flute), Juliana Koch (oboe)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London; 6 and 7 September 2019 (Trois Danses, I and III) and 16 – 18 January 2019 (other works)
Reviewed as lossless press preview.

Having caught our attention big-time with his recordings of music from the musicals, John Wilson has been branching out into other territory. Among his recent releases, it was almost inevitable that he would make a very good fist of the music of Eric Coates – I’m looking forward to more of the same. (CHAN20036: Recommended – review review). Less predictable, but just as fine, was his recording of the more serious side of Erich Korngold that put to bed once and for all the old chestnut about his music being ‘more corn than gold’ (CHSA5220: Recording of the Month – review).

Much of the music on the new recording falls into the more popular category, though some of the pieces crop up less often than they did once. Some of it, however, is more thoughtful. Predictably, España makes a rousing start to this collection and the Rapsodie Espagnole an equally colourful conclusion. The orchestral version of the Duruflé would seem a less obvious success, especially by comparison with William Whitehead (organ) who performs Danse lente on another fine Chandos album, of music by Alain and Duruflé (CHAN10315 – review DL Roundup May 2009).

In fact, the Trois danses sound even more colourful in orchestral guise than on the organ; significantly, the coupling for Marie-Claire Alain’s highly regarded recording of the Poulenc Organ Concerto comes with the orchestral not the organ version of the Danses, performed by her accompanists in the concerto, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, with Jean-Jacques Kantorow (Warner Apex 2564619122, with Duruflé Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain review). The orchestration of the final piece, Tambourin, is especially apt. There doesn’t seem to be a current recording of this piece on the organ, but Kantorow’s orchestral recording sets the benchmark high.

The music needs to move at a goodly pace, but not so fast as to make too little of the smoochy passages, and both Kantorow and Wilson get it just right. In fact, there’s as little to choose between them interpretatively as there is between their timings – just three seconds apart. The Apex is now download only, more expensive than when it was a super-budget CD, and the sound can’t quite match the quality of the new Chandos, which is available on SACD and as a 24-bit download in addition to the (very good) 16-bit lossless version which I received for review.

The Apex is well worth obtaining; even though it costs almost as much in lossless sound as the Chandos, it’s one of the best recordings of the Poulenc, but there are some fine alternatives for those looking to obtain that work. And though Wilson and Kantorow are both very good in the Duruflé, overall there’s an extra pulse of energy in the new recording that makes this the version to have.

The Duruflé, given a new lease of life, and the title piece offer the main reasons for buying the new recording. Don’t expect Escales (ports of call) to sound anything like Ibert’s best-known work, Divertissement. Chandos already had a recording of both, with Neeme Järvi and the OSR on an all-Ibert collection which received a welcome in these pages (CHSA5168 – review review). Munch’s Boston recording on which this work first enchanted me is now wrapped up in an 86-CD whopper set; it’s download only if you want it separately, with the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony and Debussy La Mer. That’s rather expensive (09026615002: around £12 in lossless), but for much the same price the same  recording of Escales is also available on a 4¾-hour Sony compilation Escales symphoniques françaises (G010003457484G: Milhaud, Ibert, Koechlin, Dukas, Saint-Saëns, D’Indy, Schmitt and Honegger, conducted by Munch (mainly), Dessay, Boulez, Mercier, Bernstein and Judd).

The other benchmark for Ibert, from the Montréal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit is also download-only (Decca 4403322, around £11 in lossless sound). I re-made the acquaintance of that and the Munch, both colourful accounts, courtesy of Naxos Music Library – here and here. Both are very fine, the only significant difference being Dutoit’s noticeably faster tempo for the third port, Valencia; Wilson comes closer to Dutoit than to Munch here, with Järvi fastest of all.

Dutoit fairly bubbles with excitement right from the start of Valencia and the recording sounds good, even as streamed at 320kb/s. That album is especially valuable for the inclusion of some works even less well-known than Escales – all those in need of some cheerful music in idiomatic performances should at least stream this if possible. Fine as Dutoit is, however, Wilson matches him for exoticism in Tunis-Nefta and for liveliness in Valencia.

Le rouet d’Omphale has now had a few more spins to its credit than when I first made its acquaintance on a Decca LP of French music from the PCO, LSO and Jean Martinon which incidentally also first introduced me to Ibert’s Divertissement (4783188, download only). The official download is expensive at over £11, but there is an unofficial version with the cover of the Decca Eclipse LP which you choose at your peril. Wilson takes about the same time as Martinon and Dutoit (Decca Ovation 4250212, an all-Saint-Saëns collection with the RPO and Philharmonia), but his wheel spins rather more gently – this was, after all, Heracles-Hercules in his least heroic labour, in servitude for a year to the semi-deity Omphale.

Neeme Järvi on another Chandos recording of Saint-Saëns is, surprisingly, slightly more leisurely still (CHSA5104). That recording met with a mixed reaction from Dan Morgan, Brian Reinhart and myself: DM and I liked it, BR had reservations. The choice is between all-Saint-Saëns and the new Chandos with its greater selection of composers. Either would be very welcome on my Desert Island; push me to choose just one and it would be the new recording, even though I heard it only in CD-quality sound and the Järvi in superior 24-bit.

Wilson’s account of Chabrier’s España makes the pop-song version of the 1950s seem a very pale imitation and his Faune’s afternoon is as hot and sultry as any, including my benchmark from Serge Baudo and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon SU3478-2, with Images, Jeux, Danse sacrée at danse profane: download or stream only). Incidentally, the Baudo is well worth £3.99 of your hard-earned money from Qobuz, though it now lacks the coupling of Première rapsodie which accompanied Faune, Jeux and Images on an earlier Supraphon Gems release – that really was the gem of that now defunct series. In line with most conductors, Wilson takes a little over nine minutes, making his version superior to Haitink, whose extra two minutes make his a very lazy afternoon indeed, though the rest of his all-Debussy twofer is very good (Decca Duo 4387422).

A collection such as this used to be popular, especially in the hands of Thomas Beecham, who dubbed them his lollipops; the Thaïs Meditation and España were two such pieces. Nobody could quite equal what Beecham used to achieve, but John Wilson is about as close as you get these days to his magic touch.

I’ve mentioned that I received the download in 16-bit CD quality and it is very good. In fact, though audiophiles will probably be willing to pay the extra for 24-bit, on this occasion they may be happy to stay with the less expensive option. This is another very enjoyable and highly successful offering from the team of Wilson and the Sinfonia of London. More, please – and more Coates to match that earlier release.

Brian Wilson

Previous reviews: Stephen Barber ~ Chris Ramsden

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