Guest Reviewer, David Gutman

Putting to one side a recording of Korngold’s String Sextet credited to the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble (and uncharacteristically tightly miked), this is the third Chandos release from this source. Very good it is too. That the programme is more mainstream than hitherto brings just a twinge of disappointment. Might not room have been found for a rarity, perhaps one of its composer’s extravagant orchestral arrangements? Then again, it would be churlish to cavil given the quality of the just-under-an-hour we do have. 

Gone are the days when the final part of Respighi’s Roman triptych was habitually omitted from concert schedules and recording projects. That said, there is still surprisingly little competition on disc for those looking for a sonically top-flight studio recording of all three symphonic poems. While surround sound is also offered by the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra under John Neschling for BIS, fans of John Wilson’s tried and tested brand will know to expect a special, even finicky preoccupation with the finer points of intonation, quality of sound and style. In any case Wilson differs from Neschling in following the performance practice favoured by Charles Dutoit in his 2014 RPO Prom. Feste Romane (the last of the set) is placed first, Fontane di Roma (the first and least rowdy) comes second, with Pini di Roma (and its final ‘I pini della Via Appia’ march-past) providing the final showstopper.

You probably have to go back to Fritz Reiner to find the might of Ancient Rome evoked with such carefully calibrated dynamics. RCA’s results amazed in 1959 and do not disappoint sixty years later. Even today the Chandos sound, more obviously modern in its range and depth, is not invariably a more seductive listen. The newcomer does prove especially captivating at low dynamic levels where the exquisite rendering of a pianissimo, twinkly, watery or rapt, can take the breath away. Individual players are not named: Wilson’s leader is the vastly experienced Andrew Haveron whose sweet solo contribution to ‘L’Ottobrata’ in Feste Romane can thus be readily if randomly singled out for praise.  Taking advantage of an ecclesiastical venue, Kilburn’s St Augustine’s Church, the recording team led by Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens delivers plenty of tummy-wobbling organ pedal and extended bass response from the strings. Included session photographs show high-lying architectural features being pressed into service to create distancing effects.

It may or may not be the case that some of Wilson’s phrasing lacks a certain Italian ease and naturalness. If so I wasn’t aware of it except perhaps in the thrills and spills of ‘La Befana’, the final segment of Feste Romane. Always something of a hallucinogenic switchback ride, Wilson plays up the crazy disparities of the trip. Riccardo Muti, usually thought of as flamboyant in his mid-1980s Philadelphia Respighi for EMI, actually preserves a certain decorum amid the prevailing dim. His pacing is more uniform and perhaps makes more sense. Sonically speaking the Chandos is preferable.

I should mention the nicely presented booklet, containing an essay by Nigel Simeone at once informative and entertaining. He considers the works in chronological order rather than that in which they appear on what is, by any standards, another very fine SACD – on Chandos CHSA 5261, released July 31.