Saturday, September 4, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30 p.m.

It was a small step from the Overture to Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus (Austrian high society in full champagne-swigging regalia) to Ravel’s post-WWI destruction of the Old World through the crushing underfoot of the classic Austrian symbol, the Waltz … and what a good idea to link such opposing states with music by a progressive composer, Alban Berg.

John Wilson and his (until now recording-only) Sinfonia of London – recently re-formed if tracing its roots to the mid-1950s – opened with an initially rushed and inelegant Fledermaus intro that took a while to settle, and although it did, there was a lack of lilt and affection during this generally charmless drive-through, oboe-led moments aside. To conclude the first half, Ravel’s La valse (1920), music that, by its end, should disturb the listener, even disorientate. It didn’t here in a performance, carefree in its opening half (perhaps appropriately), that lacked for an accruing sense of catastrophe and was more showpiece than swirling to oblivion: playing the ultimate bars hectically isn’t the answer.

Berg’s evocative Seven Early Songs (completed in 1908 with piano and orchestrated twenty years later) found in Francesca Chiejina a rapturous interpreter, really underlining the settings’ vocal kinship with Richard Strauss, while Wilson and his players rewardingly explored Berg’s shifting tonality and expressive impressionism with finesse and fine-line detailing. [Recommended recording: Susanna Phillips with SFS/MTT, as below.]

Finally, the Symphony in F-sharp (signed-off in 1952, his Hollywood career over) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, already recorded by Wilson and his ensemble for Chandos ( It’s a four-movement work that doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but is certainly distinctive, not least in scoring (a large orchestra including harp and piano) and its emotional contrasts; the first movement competes angular outbursts with bittersweet sentiments. Wilson’s total belief in this piece was palpable throughout, played superbly with blazing dedication and virtuosity, not least in the agility needed for the second-movement Scherzo (which might pass for William Walton in a ‘blind’ listen) and the filmic writing would grace a Spielberg movie. Great depth of feeling informs the expansive Adagio with its echoes of Bruckner, as prismed through Schreker and Zemlinsky, whereas the Finale opens wittily, and, even if it doesn’t always hang together and ends rather abruptly, proved to be an unstoppable force on this occasion. All in all this was forty-five minutes very well spent.

Wilson added a complementary Vienna encore, from a Zemlinsky ballet score, and very attractive, too … perhaps due on a forthcoming Chandos release?

John Wilson & Sinfonia of London record English Music for Strings for Chandos.

John Wilson records Respighi – Roman Fountains, Pines & Festivals – Sinfonia of London [Chandos]

San Francisco Symphony – Michael Tilson Thomas records Alban Berg with Gil Shaham and Susanna Phillips for SFS Media.

Ernest Ansermet conducts Ravel’s La valse with the Suisse Romande Orchestra [1957 film]