Music for Strings
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910; rev. 1919)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Concerto for String Orchestra (1938)
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Late Swallows (1916-17)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47 (1901, 1904-05)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2022, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Chandos CHSA5291 SACD [66]

I think that this is tenth disc to be issued by Chandos in their series of recordings by The Sinfonia of London under John Wilson. All are Super Audio CDs recorded at 24 bit/96 kHz, and in order to appreciate the full glory of the sound, it is necessary to play them through an SACD player, although I hasten to add that they will reproduce at CD quality when played through a standard CD player. If you have multi-channel Hi-Fi, the extra fullness of surround sound can also be experienced. I played this disc in stereo through an SACD player.

Given that the Sinfonia of London was re-established in 2018 as a recording orchestra, staffed by top players from British and international ensembles, the superb ensemble playing is not surprising, and the Chandos recording engineers have given it the very fullest of service. The orchestra has also given public performances and appeared at the BBC Proms on July 16th, in an all-English programme of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Bax conducted by John Wilson.

From the above, the reader can probably predict that I am extremely enthusiastic about the recorded quality provided here. A mildly reverberant acoustic provides a perfect cushion for the orchestra, and, as elsewhere, the strings in the vigorous outer movements of the Howells Concerto are splendid in their unanimity and fullness of tone. The necessarily less aggressive playing in the slow movement has a lovely bloom to the playing. 

The great Tallis Fantasia is taken slowly, noticeably so at the opening, but with no lack of intensity. I soon became aware of the extremes of dynamic shading achieved by the conductor and I was engulfed at the climax by the sheer gloriousness of it, being swept away by its forward impulse enveloping my aural sense. Throughout the piece, the strings are lush yet clear with unerring judgement of sensuality tempered where necessary with austerity. I can only dizzily speculate what it would sound like when played back through a multi-channel system. It is, of course, apt that the recording took place in the acoustic of a church. 

The Howells Concerto for String Orchestra is the last composed piece on the disc being penned some twenty years later than the Vaughan Williams and Delius works, and nearly forty years later than the Elgar. Unsurprisingly then, it occupies a rather different stylistic world. Howells, as a student aged eighteen, was present at the first performance of the Fantasia, and loved to relate how RVW sat next to him for the remainder of the concert, discussing the other work being performed – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.  Howells originally intended the Concerto as a tribute to Elgar who had died in 1934. A year later, he suffered a dreadful personal blow when his beloved son, Michael, died of polio at the age of nine. This is reflected in the words he used to The Radio Times prior to the first radio broadcast to describe the slow movement:

“It was inspired by the countryside between The Malverns and the Cotswolds, and by two people – one old and one young who knew and loved that part of England, Submissive and memorial in its intention and purpose, it begins in fragile terms – a solo trio’s statement of the main theme. Elegiac as always, its concern technically is with the interplay of soli and tutti”

He was referring to Elgar and his son. He also said that the nature of the two outer movements was determined by the slow movement, and so the first movement has a sense of animated drive and energy, although this is alleviated by a slow interlude in which the string quartet is prominent. I have already remarked on the top-notch ensemble work, and listening as I write, that impression is doubly reinforced. Of the last movement, Howells said that pace and melodic rhythms were the priorities, and that is reflected in the athleticism of the writing.

The slow movement is rather special, beginning with a tender, poignant melody, indeed a threnody, played by solo trio, gently backed by the strings which slowly rises to an engulfing climax – a cry of pain. There are also short, stabbing chords of grief, which to my ears sound as the two syllables of “Michael”. It doesn’t have a melodic background that grabs you immediately, but once it takes hold of your imagination…

The Delius “Late Swallows” is an orchestration by Eric Fenby, Delius’ amanuensis, of the slow movement of the String Quartet. The orchestration was undertaken at the suggestion of Sir John Barbirolli in 1962. It was inspired by the swallows that darted to and fro from the eaves of the house at Grez-sur-Loing. Very Delian in character (it could be by no one else), this performance does it full justice.

The disc closes with a fine performance of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, and as in the Tallis Fantasia, I soon became aware of the extremes of dynamic achieved. This lovely, utterly memorable work is so familiar that I just sat back and let it wash over me.

The presentation of the SACD is up to Chandos’ normal high standards, with a detailed analysis of the gestation and structure of each work (particularly of the Howells) and a history of the orchestra, accompanying a brief biography of John Wilson, all in English, French and German.

It should be noted that the recordings were generously supported by The Herbert Howells Trust. 

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Ralph Moore (February 2023)

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