With a typically stylish programme, John Wilson took the London Symphony Orchestra and viewers on a colourful ride through three works with vibrant orchestration, great tunes and lively rhythms at their heart. Wilson mentioned the “high degree of finish” in Maurice Ravel’s orchestration in his introduction, and whilst the idioms of Richard Rodney Bennett and George Gershwin (as arranged by another Bennett – no relation as far as I'm aware) are different, they too demonstrate effective use of the orchestral palette.

John Wilson
© London Symphony Orchestra

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partita is certainly “full of tunes”, as he intended, but across its three movements the composer also shows his wit and charm, making use of string and wind solos in combination with deftly light orchestration. Scored for a light chamber orchestra, it was commissioned in 1995 to be performed by 17 different orchestras in the following year. Accessible and engaging, from the lively, filmic Intrada, to the warmly romantic Lullaby and the spiky, lively Finale, it provided a great opening to this concert showcasing Wilson’s tight, detailed approach and the LSO’s commitment to precision and excellence. The Intrada had energetic drive from the outset, and the mournful viola solo at the start of the Lullaby was complemented well by the warmth of the central romantic horn solo. The complex rhythms of the finale were kept in tight check by Wilson, building to a suitably celebratory climax.

Beyond the title, there is little to connect Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales to Schubert’s sets of piano waltzes, particularly in their orchestrated version. Ravel had already begun work on his La Valse, but it was not published until some years later. Here there are the germs of his take on the waltz form, particularly in the darker hued movements. Liquid harmonies, swirling surges and halting rubato, combined with perfectly judged orchestral colours, push the form to its limits, although never quite reaching the edge of oblivion, as Ravel takes us in La Valse. Here, Wilson and the LSO players relished in the silky textures and surging waves, with delicate precision in the many solo wind passages. Whilst Ravel, as mentioned, doesn’t take us as close to the edge as in La Valse, there could have been a greater sense of danger here in places, yet this was more than made up for by the expertly balanced textures, with some particularly rich string playing.

John Wilson conducts the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke's
© London Symphony Orchestra

In 1941, Fritz Reiner commissioned composer Robert Russell Bennett, best known for his Broadway and Hollywood arrangements, to create an orchestral take on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Of course all the hit tunes make an appearance, but in Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, Bennett also manages to include some sense of dramatic atmosphere, for example, in the hurricane music, and the energetically active “Picnic Party”. Again, Wilson showed his command, steering the LSO through the frequent mood changes, and handling the contrasting rhythms and tempi shifts without letting the joins show. The solo oboe in “Summertime” was sultry but not overly indulgent, and “Bess, You is My Woman Now” had some sensuous string playing and nuanced dynamics. By the time of the “Picnic Party”, the players were clearly having fun, with the brass in the St Lukes balcony giving us some swing, and a broad smile appearing on Wilson’s face. The three sax players rose to their feet for a mischievous take on “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’”, and after a slinky “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, the Finale was infectiously joyous, with bright brass and fulsome strings. An uplifting conclusion to an evening full of warmth, fun and vitality.

This performance was reviewed from the Marquee TV video stream