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From MGM Musicals to Uncompromisingly Radical Copland

From MGM Musicals to Uncompromisingly Radical Copland

Sometime in the early aughts the enterprising British conductor John Wilson scheduled a concert of songs and instrumental music from the classic MGM movies and movie-musicals of the 40s, 50s, and 60s he loved from his childhood, to be performed by the John Wilson Orchestra, an ensemble he had founded 10 years earlier, while still in college, for the express purpose of playing such music, plus jazz. Upon discovering the studio had in 1969 destroyed most of the orchestral scores (for storage!), Wilson, rather than cancel the concert, elected to reconstruct them. Using piano reductions and the soundtrack recordings themselves, he began the almost inconceivably arduous task of creating new instrumental parts by ear—a whole morning,” he recalled, “to get five or six seconds of music,” a full weekend for the storm sequence from A Wizard of Oz. In the 20 years since that concert, he has reconstructed some 300 classic film and film-musical scores and performed them many times in concerts.

This is typical of the energy, dedication, and consummate musicianship Wilson brings to everything he does. When he turned his attention to the classical concert repertoire he was trained in, at the Royal Academy of Music (where he is now a Fellow), he developed an association with the BBC Philharmonic. Then, in 2018, he resuscitated the famous Sinfonia of London, a beloved studio orchestra active from the mid-fifties to the early aughts. The relaunched Sinfonia is made up of top-flight players handpicked by Wilson from the most distinguished UK and European orchestras, chamber groups, studio musicians, and soloists. Wilson’s recordings with all three of these ensembles have garnered almost universally rave reviews, not to mention several awards and prize. I’ve spent much of the last two months immersing myself in these recordings. What follows are 6 I particularly enjoyed.

The Best of the John Wilson Orchestra (Warner Classics). Every one of Wilson’s movie-music compilations is superb, but start with this two-CD collection that pulls from all 10. Wilson’s grasp of the idiom is second-nature, his performances have all the style, panache, and authenticity of the originals, and he uses experienced singers, who avoid the operatic trap of too much weight of tone. Sonics are so dynamic as to leap out of your speakers.

Copland, Orchestra Works, Volumes 2 & 4. BBC Philharmonic (Chandos, SACD hybrid). All four releases in this series are easily competitive with any Copland out there, while Chandos’ reference-caliber reproduction is in a class by itself. Volumes 2 and 4 feature Copland the avant-garde master of absolute music, here the adventurous first symphony with organ, Orchestral Variations, the fiendishly difficult Symphonic Ode and second symphony, and the 12-tone Connotations, a gigantic, gritty, gnarly piece compressed into 20 intense, searingly powerful minutes. The latter disc is filled out with Copland’s third symphony, where Wilson plays up lyricism at the expense of rhetoric and also restores the 22 bars Bernstein cut from the last movement’s coda.

Escales. Sinfonia of London (Chandos, SACD hybrid). This release reveals Wilson as a master program builder: seven late romantic/impressionist French works documenting the French attraction to the foreign, the far off, the exotic. Playing is virtuosic, clarity of line and texture, nuances of color, expression, and dynamics breathtaking: how softly Ravel’s Rhapsodie steals in, how dreamily erotic is Debussy’s Faun before it swells into those rapturous string passages, what a treat to get a rarity like Duruflé’s delightful Trois Danses—all reproduced with that fabulous Chandos sound!

In 1963 Sir John Barbirolli recorded what is perhaps the single most celebrated album by the old Sinfonia of London: English String Music. The first LP the 11-year-old John Wilson ever bought, this remains his favorite record, his homage to it and its conductor these two albums of British string music by Vaughan Williams, Howells, Delius, Elgar, Britten, Bliss, Bridge, and Berkeley. Anyone who dismisses the relaunched Sinfonia as a “mere” pickup orchestra must contend with the fact that on these and their dozen other Chandos albums under Wilson, there is a level of string playing easily comparable to the top residential orchestras in the world. After Copland at his most uncompromisingly radical, the pieces here are tonal and tuneful, typical mid-century conservative British “modern,” but no less delightful. And in terms of tone, timbre, dynamic range, bloom, and soundstaging, Chandos’ recording lays fair claim to being the finest of a string orchestra in my collection.

Tags: CLASSICAL COMPOSER JOHN WILSON MUSIC

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