John Wilson Loves English String Music

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BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. BRIDGE: Lament. BERKELEY: Serenade for Strings. BLISS: Music for Strings / Sinfonia of London; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5264

God love the Brits, they’re nothing if not loyal to their homegrown talent. Whether it be a composer, conductor, pianist, violinist, soprano, tenor or musical saw player, no one does it better than a Brit. And only Brits now how to play British music.

Here John Wilson honors four of his countrymen’s music for string orchestra, and happily much of the music is excellent. We start out with one of young Ben Britten’s finest and most important early works, his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Chandos really likes this work; there are other recordings of it in their catalog by Ronald Thomas. Yuli Turovsky (the one I already own) and one of just the “Romance” from this piece taken from the Turovsky recording.

Wilson’s performance is a very good one, on a par with Turovsky’s if a bit more romantic in feeling. (That’s another thing about the British: they’re still madly in love with Romantic works.) Nonetheless, Wilson also creates a nice feeling of mystery in the soft music following the loud opening chords, and the Sinfonia of London clearly knows how to deliver this mood. The “March” is also quite lively, with a nice rhythmic swagger and a slight undercurrent of menace, and the orchestra really gets into the “Aria Italiana” with zest and a nice sweep. Indeed, the whole performance is excellent though not, to my ears, superior to the Turovsky one.

The very brief (3:47) Lament by Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, is a surprisingly forward-looking piece though it was written in 1915, and it, too, is played with excellent atmosphere by the London Sinfonia. By contrast, Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, though good music, misses greatness but is a very entertaining piece along the lines of Prokofiev’s First Symphony without Prokofiev’s cleverness and interesting twists and turns. It has just enough modern chords in it to be interesting without turning off an audience craving harmonic resolution and, like most of Berkeley’s music, is well crafted.

Interestingly, Sir Arthur Bliss’ Music for Strings from 1935 is more modern though not edgy; it is more in line with the Britten piece than the Berkeley, even though Bliss was 12 years Berkeley’s senior. This is really interesting, creative music with inspired and quite unexpected twists and turns, The first-time listener really won’t be able to predict, from the themes played, where the music is going or how it will be developed—for me, always the mark of an interesting composer. And it’s not that I have a lot of Bliss in my collection. I really don’t. but I do have his mid-1940s Piano Concerto as played by Solomon and it, too, is an original and outstanding work. So perhaps Bliss should be a composer more on my radar.

As in the cases of all the preceding music, Wilson’s conducting is spot on and the orchestra’s playing is committed and lustrous. All in all, then, a really fine CD even if the Berkeley piece isn’t quite on the level of the other three works.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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