This disc is already garnering high praise from the usual sources - those who just love John Wilson unequivocally, no matter what he does or how it goes. So I'll chime in with my observations, which are generally in concordance - but not entirely.
After a promising start to the Vaughan Williams Fantasia, establishing a dense, textured string tone, it doesn't take long before a rushed urgency takes over which reminded me very much of this team's recording of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen (previously released on Chandos in early 2022). And how fascinating to discover in the booklet that all this music on both discs was recorded at the same time - during the same sessions in the last week of August, 2021. (With the exception of the Delius, which was recorded 5 months later.) So, not surprisingly, the same characteristics pervade both programs, replete with an audacious, upfront sound which projects the orchestra out into the room, which can be a bit overwhelming.
Further, John Wilson likes to bring everything forward in the mix - every inner detail which has moving parts, no matter how unimportant or insignificant. And the results can sound rather "notey" and busy, rather than musically interesting. And that occurs here when things get moving (and Wilson certainly moves it along at quite a pace.) And Chandos's propensity for close microphone placement and a very forward soundstage further exacerbates the effect.
Reservations aside, there are some wonderful things on both of these discs of music for strings. The previous disc contains a glorious reading of Korngold's Symphonic Serenade, less intense and more colorful than the Strauss, much of the intensity replaced with rhapsodic passion and cinematic splendor. In the current collection, it's the Herbert Howells Concerto for Strings and Delius's Late Swallows which are played with similar fervor and ardent richness. It's curious how the intensity, so prevalent in much of the music on both discs, is relaxed some in these works in particular - to great advantage. Who knows why? Maybe they were recorded right after a nice lunch. Or perhaps the humidity of August had let up during these sessions. Or maybe Wilson was simply in a better mood. Or - even more likely - I suspect the Chandos engineers had made some adjustments to the microphones which resulted in a slightly different perspective - just enough to provide some space. In the end it doesn't really matter. As with most things, we've got what we've got - the good and the very good.
And in the case of the Howells on this newer release, it is very good indeed. Wilson brings the piece to life with vigor, making one wonder why it isn't played more often. Passionate and dramatic - and charming and elegant where it needs to be - Wilson is simply outstanding here. And it is magnificently played by this fantastic string section. I know of only three other recordings of this wonderful piece - from Richard Hickox (also on Chandos), Vernon Handley (Hyperion), and Boult (EMI, circa 1974). I own the Hyperion, and Handley is decidedly more mellow and atmospheric in stark contrast to Wilson's dramatic intensity. And listening to them back-to-back, the refined subtlety of the Hyperion is inviting and luscious, while the huge, upfront sound from Chandos is so bold, it's practically confrontational. It's amazing that Wilson makes as much music out of it as he does.
The Delius which follows has its moments of intensity too, but overall is a lovely reading - with radiant string tone. I had not heard the piece before and it was interesting to learn this is a repurposing of the slow movement of his wonderful String Quartet. It is simply gorgeous in this very successful arrangement for full string orchestra by Eric Fenby. And Chandos seems to have backed off just a little, allowing a slightly more atmospheric acoustic.
Unfortunately, the Elgar once again returns us to the extreme intensity of the Strauss (and to a lesser degree, the Vaughan Williams), especially in the opening Introduction. Even after becoming acclimated to the close-up perspective heard throughout this disc, the orchestra seems to be even more forward and the basses have gained a pronounced bloom and boomy resonance to pizzicatos. I've heard this peculiarity in the bass from Chandos before with this orchestra (to varying degrees) and I don't like it. Wilson is at his utmost best, however, and relaxes beautifully in the more intimate passages. And while the energy he brings to the Allegro is certainly arresting (and supremely exciting), it is a bit unrelenting as recorded. If only Chandos hadn't meddled; Wilson's energy and straightforward approach in this piece works extremely well.
To put the current disc in perspective, none of it is less than wonderful. And some of this music is pretty scarce on CD. But what makes all of it work better here than usual is the use of this enormous string section, courtesy of the incomparable Sinfonia of London. Musically, this allows a greater distinction between passages for tutti strings and those for a smaller soli section (as in the VW) and the quartet of string soloists (in all the rest). Using a smallish string section, as is often utilized on record, minimizes these contrasts in the scoring. Not so here. The differences in color and texture are extraordinary. And it is positively glorious to hear a full-sized string section playing so fervently at full tilt, with such enthusiasm and vibrancy. It is disappointing, however, that Chandos chose to provide an extremely bold and forward soundstage for this type of program. It does this music no favors and, frankly, this string section doesn't need any "help" from the control room. As we hear in the two subsequent recordings of this orchestra playing Rachmaninoff and Hollywood movie music, Chandos can achieve magnificent results with a more natural and realistic perspective.
In my musings about John Wilson in my recent review of his Rachmaninoff 3rd, I praised Chandos profusely and credited their outstanding recorded sound for much of Wilson's success. But listening to these Music for Strings albums, I've come to the opposite conclusion. Even when Chandos doesn't get the sound quite right, John Wilson (with this incomparable orchestra) consistently manages to create music which is engaging, rewarding and enjoyable. And such is the case here.
Despite the recorded sound which often lacks allure, I nonetheless enjoyed both of these discs very much. And I continue to marvel at the body of sound this fabulous string section can produce under Wilson's direction. It is surely the best since Ormandy's Philadelphians way back in the day.
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