London was once the recording capital of the world. As such there were any number of pick-up orchestras with fancy names working exclusively in the studio. Not the least of these was the Sinfonia of London, founded in 1955 and since then twice resurrected, most recently in 2018. Now in the capable hands of John Wilson, this was its first public outing and simultaneous Proms debut. As so often in the past, it boasts the cream of players from many other ensembles. Expectations were therefore high at the outset.

John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Things did not get off to a promising start. Though internal balances were good, as they were throughout this concert, whiplash precision and a metronomic beat do not add up to a very satisfying overture to Die Fledermaus, especially when the all-important Viennese lilt is missing. Shaping of the material matters enormously, as in two important oboe solos: the first should sound pert and saucy, heralding a load of fun to follow, but the second in the minor key needs to stress that everything will not be a barrel of laughs. 

Francesca Chiejina was the soloist in Berg’s Seven Early Songs. Hers is a sweetly lyrical voice, secure in all registers, even in the higher tessitura of Die Nachtigall, but without much projection in a hall this size. Berg set these pieces to words by some of the finest German poets. Clear enunciation was sadly wanting, the consonant endings in Traumgekrönt especially so, and the repeated warning at the end of Nacht – “O gibt acht” – was made to sound like a tender farewell rather than the warning it is intended to be. 

Francesca Chiejina and the Sinfonia of London
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

During Wilson’s take on Ravel’s La Valse, I found myself admiring the lustrous brass section, the clarity of the woodwind and the pinpoint precision of the percussion more than an awareness of this being quite a shadowy piece. Again, everything was neatly ordered, the steps, slides, side sways and pivot turns immaculately placed, grace and elegance aplenty. But as this tribute to a forgotten age headed into its dark descent, Wilson applied the brakes. There was no sense of menace, no unalterable sense of the wheels coming off the carriage.

It was André Previn who underlined one of the misconceptions about Korngold’s later career as a film composer. Many of his colleagues started to shamelessly copy his characteristic lushness. The result was that a great deal of Hollywood film music began to sound like Korngold, as opposed to Korngold sounding like Hollywood. Wilson has already recorded Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp major with this orchestra and clearly loves this late work from the post-WW2 period, which draws on earlier film material. The love was evident in the care over detail, none more so than in the second movement Scherzo, where he relished the snap, crackle and pop of the orchestral textures: bubbling energy from the strings, repeated lashings from keyboard percussion, the composer’s signature swashbuckling sounds from the horns and, in the relaxed Trio section, celestial chimes from the celesta. 

Perhaps echoing George Szell’s famous retort about a supposed absence of warmth in a performance, that you can’t pour chocolate sauce over asparagus spears, Wilson has stated much the same in a recent interview about Korngold’s music. That said, I can’t help feeling that the level of inventiveness declines towards the end of this symphony. There is not much to match the first movement in terms of the angularity of the string writing and hints of Stravinsky-inspired neo-classicism, the pastoral episodes with angelic flute solos and the sharp expressions of colour from brass and percussion.