Making its Barbican debut, the Sinfonia of London was firing on all cylinders, resulting in one of the finest concerts of the year.
It seems that everything conductor John Wilson touches turns to gold. Having relaunched the Sinfonia of London in 2018 after a fifty-plus year hiatus – it was widely acknowledged to be the leading recording orchestra of its day – Wilson took them back into the recording studio to produce a string of releases that garnered universal praise from critics and punters alike. With hand-picked players from some of the country’s leading orchestras and ensembles, Wilson had assembled an orchestral tour de force.
Keeping them locked away in the studio was nothing short of criminal, so when they made their official concert debut at the BBC Proms in 2021 critics were once again left grasping for superlatives. It wasn’t so much the brilliance of their playing, but Wilson – always with a keen eye of re-examining familiar works – made us rethink some of the most familiar pieces in the repertoire. He also championed unjustly neglected works, most notably Korngold’s Symphony in F-Sharp, which was the centrepiece of their Proms concert.
Their debut at the Barbican was keenly anticipated – especially as Wilson had curated a programme that mixed some familiar favourites with a couple of lesser-known works. Even if the playing hadn’t been on the exalted level that it was, this would still have been a memorable evening, given this eclectic choice of programme. That it scaled the heights, and then some, was down to the combination of an ensemble at the absolute top of its game, under the guidance of one of the country’s most inspiring conductors.
The concert began with a rarity – Walton’s Scapino – a witty and exuberant kaleidoscope of orchestral colours that aptly brought to life Harlequin’s servant. Plunged into the world of commedia dell’arte, Scapino contains some of Walton’s most boisterous music, here brilliantly brought to life. Textures were pellucid and every musical line was allowed to sing – all the detail contained in Walton’s score coming across clearly and cleanly.
“Keeping them locked away in the studio was nothing short of criminal…”
We were then plunged into the sensual world of Arabia with a highly perfumed account of Ravel’s miraculous song cycle Shéhérazade. Perfectly evoking the sultry heat of faraway lands, Ravel’s trilogy of songs takes the listener on a languid journey of exoticism, requiring both a filigree delicacy and lightness of touch, as well as more muscularly driven playing to ensure the ebullient climaxes are given due weight. Wilson and his crack players luxuriated in the work’s rich orchestral panoply, while Alice Coote gave a gloriously expressive performance – her lush mezzo-soprano has never sounded better. Relishing the text, and inflecting Ravel’s melodic lines with warmth, passion, and verve this was a performance of raw honesty – thankfully utterly devoid of histrionics.
Wilson introduced the work that closed the first half, as he’d gone back to Gershwin’s original manuscript of An American in Paris, finding an additional 86 bars of music that had been expunged by the composer’s publishers, for copyright reasons. These extra bars added balance to the work, most notably near the close of the piece, and it was fascinating to hear Gershwin’s original thoughts in what can only be described as a swashbuckling account of this brash, electrifying score. It’s hard to imagine it performed better – James Fountain’s brazen trumpet solos perfectly in keeping with the music’s swagger.
A captivating performance of Dutilleux’s ballet score, Le Loup (The Wolf) opened the second half of the concert. A real rarity this, Wilson made the best possible case for the young French composer’s three movement work, which takes the listener on a dark, disturbing but at times viscerally exciting musical journey. The evening concluded with a performance of Ravel’s Bolero, in its original ballet form. The main differences from the version usually heard in the concert hall were the addition of castanets in the final pages, and the snare drum part being shared between two players, placed antiphonally at either side of the stage. For a piece that can overstay its welcome, Wilson and his musicians delivered an engrossing account that dispelled all sense of over-familiarity.
From the hushed, barely perceptible opening to its shattering climax, this was as perfectly judged and impeccable performance as you’re likely to hear, setting the seal on an evening of music making that will live long in the memory. I’ve been to many first-rate concerts this year, and this extraordinary evening of musical magic undoubtedly counts as one of, if not the, best.