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Strauss metamorphosen CHSA5292
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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen [28:14]
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Intermezzo, Op. 8 [6:00]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Symphonische Serenade, Op. 39 [29:41]
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson (conductor)
rec. 2021, Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London

John Wilson’s revival of the Sinfonia of London has produced some wonderful recordings of repertoire both fresh and well-trodden. This disc combines both around the theme of music for strings, and it’s so good that I’m starting to wonder whether they can put a foot wrong.

This is the most intense, searching performance of Metamorphosen that I’ve heard on disc since Karajan’s 1980s recording. That’s thanks to a fairly astonishing symbiosis of the conductor’s vision and the orchestra’s playing, combined with first class recorded sound. (And, in the interests of full disclosure, I was listening in 2.0 stereo only: it must be mind-blowing on SACD!)

This is a performance that is warm and absorbing; almost comforting, for all its darkness. The orchestra builds its sound on a sensational cushion of bass tone, firm without being insistent, and from that point up the lines build onto one another like interlocking beams to create a magnificent aural edifice. These players are clearly 23 individuals: nobody hides but each contributes to the success of the whole, and they caress every line with tenderness and sophistication. The sound is intense and concentrated, almost feverish in places, and Wilson’s control of the developing structure is superb. It moves organically so that when the tempi change, particularly in and out of the faster major-key central section, it feels natural, never clunky or forced. The Chandos engineers outdo themselves in the recording quality, too. The textures are superbly captured, getting just the right balance between clarity and blend, which is just what you need in a work of 23 soloists, so that the texture is never clogged or congested.

All of this comes together in the work’s final third. The launch of the recapitulation increases the tension by a noticeable notch, and as it intensifies there is a sense of rage and anguish, Strauss’s four-note monotone theme sounding out like muffled hammer-blows. The hiatus that precipitates the final disaster (at 21:20) made me start in my chair, and Eroica quotation, when it comes, isn’t overdone but quietly finds itself absorbed into the gathering twilight.

After this stunner, the rest of the disc provides lighter balance. Schreker’s 1900 Intermezzo sounds fabulously warm. In its textures, and even in part of its mood, it put me in mind of Schreker’s English contemporaries, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, in the generous tones way they used a string orchestra. It will win for Schreker new fans, particularly those who find the intensity of his operas a hard sell.

Wilson and his orchestra have form in the orchestral works of Korngold, and this performance of the Symphonic Serenade is worthy to set alongside their recording of the (roughly contemporaneous) Symphony. It’s a beautiful work, one clearly written by a film composer who understands the need to have a sense of forward momentum while keeping the audience entertained; and the Sinfonia of London play it with string sound that is rich and chocolaty but also fluid and agile. The first movement sounds indulgently sweet, purposeful without being heavy, and urgent in places, but finding relief from its troubles in a gorgeous, airy ending. The pizzicato scherzo is savagely precise in this performance, while the slow movement has expansive sound so warm and inviting you could take a bath in it. The finale bristles with energy, and Wilson shapes the whole work with seriousness and intelligence, clearly arguing that this is a string serenade in the same lineage as Tchaikovsky’s and Dvořák’s: in other words just a hair’s breadth away from a symphony.

Altogether this disc is a total treat. You may come for the Strauss, and you won’t be disappointed if you do; but you’ll stay for the Schreker and Korngold, and you’ll have a whale of a time while you listen.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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