I don't know exactly why I hesitate to take John Wilson seriously as a conductor. In the back of my mind he's something of a novelty - a bit on the "crossover" spectrum, perhaps even a "Pops" conductor. (Not that I would ever belittle a pops conductor; I thought Arthur Fiedler, for one, was for the most part excellent.) Perhaps it's because Wilson has recorded a lot of lighter Classical fare (Bennett, Copland, Coates Escales, etc. on Chandos), and all those glitzy Broadway musicals albums (EMI) and idiomatic Big-Band compilations (Dutton/Vocalion). And then he began re-recording some stuff he'd already done - material that frankly didn't merit it (i.e. Coates and Ireland). Or perhaps it's that I found his Respighi, Copland and Coates rather reserved, and his Metamorphosen disc uninspired. And then, certainly without a doubt, the highlight of recent memory is his latest disc, Hollywood Soundstage, which is an absolute knockout. That is what John Wilson does best. Right?
But yet, there are standouts in more "serious" repertoire too. His 2019 Korngold Symphony in F# is second to none; his Ravel is very good (if not quite a first choice); his Dutilleux collection is enterprising; and his first collection of string music (English Music for Strings) was delightful. So maybe I've been underestimating Mr. Wilson.
First and foremost, though, we must acknowledge that John Wilson has two enormous advantages that tend to make him better than he might otherwise be, particularly in his recordings with the Sinfonia of London. And for me, these are the real reasons for his success over and above his inherent capabilities as a conductor. 1) His handpicked band of London's best orchestral musicians combine to make one of the best recording orchestras on the planet (especially that magnificent string section). 2) Chandos affords him their very best SACD multi-channel sound, captured in the most gorgeous acoustic imaginable, creating some of the best-sounding orchestral discs ever made. (And with over 9,000 discs in my collection, I've heard the best - and worst - of them.)
Now, however, with his recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, I can deny him no more. And must consider him a "force to be reckoned with". For this recording is absolutely dazzling.
I was ready to be dismissive, though. I had my critical reviewer hat firmly in place ready to find faults. But...there aren't any. I was bowled over with the music-making (and recorded sound) from beginning to end.
I started with The Isle of the Dead - a piece which I've never really loved - and I was seduced, so mesmerizing (almost intoxicating) was the music pouring from my speakers. I was transfixed, and I wasn't expecting to be. Musically, tempo is everything. And here Wilson controls it magnificently, with a forward momentum which is practically propulsive, yet held in suspense by that persistent, restless ebb-and-flow, with its unsettled rhythmic pulse which tugs at the emotions, creating enormous apprehension. The piece is overwhelmingly powerful and very moving in Wilson's hands and I knew something extraordinary was happening.
Vocalise is wonderful, if perhaps not quite as ravishing as Ormandy's 1967 CBS recording with those sensuous violin solos, played like no one else could, by concertmaster Norman Carol. Wilson adheres to Rachmaninoff's score in his arrangement which calls for 16 soli violins playing the famous melody - in addition to the positively melting English Horn and clarinet solos, exquisitely played here. Again, what an orchestra.
As to the Symphony, well, it's as moving and exciting as it gets. Again tempos are everything, and again Wilson keeps things moving. Yet he takes his time to caress a phrase (but doesn't linger unnecessarily) and draws from this orchestra some of the most richly colorful, rapturous body of string tone one could ever hope to hear. It sounds like there are literally hundreds of players, fully on a par with Ormandy's Philadelphians in their heyday in the 50s/60s. And Chandos surrounds them in air and spaciousness - never heavy or thick, but airy, textured and transparent. The frantic mega-vibrato Wilson coaxed from these strings in his Hollywood disc is supplanted here with copious amounts of robust vibrato, though it's still quite fast. It's somewhat unique, but isn't strange as it is in the Hollywood set. It works gloriously here in Rachmaninoff, affording a lavish voluptuousness to their sound.
The first movement is simply glorious. The constant changes in tempo are managed with a naturalness which is extraordinary. Wilson plays the important exposition repeat as well. The slow movement is tenderly singing, again at a flowing tempo, but not rushed. The Finale then takes off like a whirlwind. It is marked Allegro, and allegro it is. (Although, the hair-raising sprint to the finish line at the end, marked Allegro vivace, is even more exhilarating!) Yet the second subject relaxes gloriously without becoming an abrupt gear change. It just naturally slows, barely perceptible, allowing the melodies to continue singing uninterrupted. Too many conductors insist on slamming on the brakes, slowing it down way too much and overplaying the rubato. The constant slowing/speeding up and incessant swells in volume can often end up sounding mannered or contrived. (Or worse, queasy.) Not so here; Wilson's command of tempo and subtle use of rubato are simply masterful in Rachmaninoff.
All through, the dynamic range is breathtaking - not just technically, but in the way this orchestra responds so instantaneously and generously to Wilson's every gesture. I believe the greatest achievement on display here is the spontaneous unanimity of approach which can only come from an obvious love, appreciation and respect among podium and players. The results simply radiate with wondrous vitality in the music-making. How wonderful it is to hear an orchestra fully engaged and enthusiastically committed.
So then, despite my perhaps unfounded reservations with John Wilson, I admit he is becoming one of my favorite conductors making records today. Yes he's aided by one of the best orchestras ever assembled and with some the best recorded sound ever. But those things don't just occur in a vacuum; there has to be leadership providing the inspiration. Wilson is the real deal. And this record unequivocally proves it.