This team has been producing some very popular and highly entertaining releases over the past few years. Chandos has tapped into a goldmine with John Wilson and his fabulous hand-picked orchestra. I've enjoyed many of their recordings, including - especially - their previous outing for strings (2021, English Music for Strings). This latest one for just the strings isn't quite as nice.
Right out of the gate, the introduction of the Strauss Metamorphosen seems uneventful and rather passionless. John Wilson's characteristic no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts style is not terribly well-suited for Richard Strauss, I'm afraid. The music moves along without much affection and I longed for more communicative intimacy.
And as it progresses, things start to get pretty intense - and busy during climactic sections. Wilson brings out much inner detail to the fore, which should be musically informative. Instead, it tends to become a loud and complex confusion of notes. And the recorded sound intensifies it further with forward, thick, roughly textured sound. I longed for more air and light-and-shadow contrast.
I don't know if this ensemble was perhaps trying too hard to sound "big" and missed the point of it all, or if Wilson just isn't a Strauss guy, but this piece (which admittedly is difficult to bring off) was disappointing.
Schreker's Intermezzo is a bit intense too in its thickly-scored central section. But the music is lighter in the outer sections and more colorfully Romantic. And lasting just 6 minutes, it is much more pleasing.
By far the most enjoyable music here is Korngold's Symphonic Serenade for Strings. We know Wilson has a special affinity for Korngold based upon his previous two discs of that composer's music, and it is immediately apparent here. We hear deeper musical involvement, meaningful dynamic shadings and wonderful musical phrasing. The writing is endlessly varied and interesting, which responds very well to Wilson's straight-forward approach.
The lilting opening movement is delightful in Wilson's hands, and the strings display a lyrical sweetness missing in the Strauss. The pizzicato 2nd movement is marvelously atmospheric and full of character, and the finale is very exciting and dramatic. Just listen to the opening motif on the low strings, which is quite arresting with its heavy bow-on-string presence - made perhaps larger-than-life by the close microphone placement.
And about the Chandos sound...it's still a bit over-rich in the midrange and thick, even boomy, in the bass. But overall, it is improved over the previous works - more spacious and not quite as uptight.
There are not many recordings of the Korngold and comparisons are interesting. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually prefer the recorded sound on the 1996 Chandos CD for Matthias Bamert and the BBC Philharmonic. It is at once fresher, more relaxed, lighter and infinitely cleaner. Another recording of the work I remember enjoying is a 1989 CD from Werner Albert and the Northwest German Philharmonic on CPO. However, listening to it again, despite it being very satisfying musically, it is not as well played or recorded as either Chandos.
So while some of this music is somewhat unnecessarily intense here (there is no better word for it), the Korngold is quite wonderful. I am puzzled, though, why Chandos strayed from the marvelous recorded sound heard on their English String Music SACD just a year earlier. This orchestra did not need any "help" from the engineers. Still, the program itself is enticing and the couplings unique. I always welcome new recordings of music not often encountered.