Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen, TrV 290 (1945) [28:14]
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Intermezzo, Op. 8 (1900) [6:00]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphonic Serenade for String Orchestra in B flat major Op.39 (1949) [29:41]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 25-27 & 29 August 2021, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London
CHANDOS CHSA5292 SACD [64:22]
Relaunched by John Wilson in 2018, the Sinfonia of London has a recording history going back some sixty years; this latest issue presents three works for string orchestra, two of which are comparative rarities, whereas Strauss’ Metamorphosen has frequently been recorded – I refer you to my recent survey of 24 of the over 90 recordings available. There is certainly no shortage of recommendable versions, so this latest account enters a competitive field; however, it can hold its place in that distinguished company and its appeal is further enhanced by the attractiveness of the programme here.
My thoughts on first playing Metamorphosen were that it starts somewhat too lugubriously and indeed this a performance on the slow side, but I soon came to appreciate the care with which its pacing is controlled and graded and in that regard it reminds me of Sinopoli’s fine recording, although textures here are leaner and cleaner than in that sumptuous Dresden account. The build-up to climactic moments is inexorable and both intonation and gradation of dynamics are impeccable. Having said that, I could ideally welcome a little more fire and intensity at key points, as it is all so imperturbably beautiful - but I quibble. Leader and violin soloist Charlie Lovell-Jones’ playing is rapturous and ensemble and co-ordination are flawless.
The short Schreker piece was new to me. Having been acquainted only with his Irrelohe, and knowing both its dramaturgy and music to be among the most eccentric I have ever encountered – indeed, its orgiastic violence was condemned by the Nazis as “Entartete Musik”, a label facilitated by the fact that not only was the opera obviously inherently decadent but it was written by a Jewish composer - I was surprised by the calm, relatively conventional lyricism of his Intermezzo, which has more than a touch of Grieg and Brahms about it, yet also points forward with its adventurous harmonies. There is passionate, melodious sweep to the music which is most attractive.
The Korngold work, one of his later compositions, is a meatier proposition, being in four movements and essentially a symphony with both lyrical and stridently dissonant passages; it is clearly a close, but more modern, cousin to similar works by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. The pizzicato passages in the second movement are evidently very challenging but the Sinfonia surmounts those challenges triumphantly. It is a work of many moods and the Lento religioso is especially soulful, played here with rapt, serene tranqulity. The finale is a rumbustious, moto perpetuo affair suggestive of some of Korngold’s swashbuckling film scores, alternating between almost Mendelssohnian gossamer and swaggering tutti whose violence is reminiscent of Shostakovich in martial mode. Interestingly, the first performance of this work was given by Furtwängler and the VPO in January 1950.
The sound quality here is first-rate, with just a slight halo of reverberation around the strings, suggestive of space, and balances are perfect. Excellent, informative notes by Gavin Plumley complete a wholly successful enterprise presenting three entirely different string works which nonetheless combine to create a delightfully varied, entertaining – and even moving - recital.