Not every orchestral programme needs a big symphony to make its mark, as John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London proved in their Barbican debut, which fielded an overture, an orchestral song cycle, a tone poem and two shortish ballets. Wilson re-established the orchestra and name, attached to the leading recording ensemble of the 1950s, as his own vehicle for making recordings in 2018. But as his CDs began to wow everyone who listened to them, he must have realised that he couldn’t keep the Sinfonia hidden away in the studio for long, and this hand-picked ensemble comprising many of the best musicians in the country made its public debut at last year’s Proms. This Barbican date formed part of its first national tour and was simply one of the most riveting orchestral concerts experienced in a very long time.

Loading image...
John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London
© Chris Christodoulou

If there was a theme to the programme it was that of the composer exploring different cultures: Walton in Italy, Ravel in Asia and Spain, Gershwin in Paris. Only Dutilleux’s ballet Le Loup, telling a ‘beauty and the beast’ story constructed in the style of a German legend, seemed the odd one out, though it was the largest component and made one want to return to these forces’ acclaimed recording of the piece: this early-ish work, with flavours of both Roussel and Prokofiev, was played energetically and crisply, giving every component of the orchestra a moment in the limelight.

The concert had begun, though, in the world of the commedia dell’arte with Walton’s Scapino overture, and what emerged most strongly from this performance was the transparency of Wilson’s textural balancing. Quite apart from the visceral keenness of the rhythms and phrasing, every strand could be picked out by the ear, a quality that became a feature of the concert as a whole.

The combination of sensuality and drama in Ravel’s Shéhérazade found its perfect voice in mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who teased us with musical seduction as much as Wilson and his orchestra fleshed out the composer’s sumptuous orchestral lines and harmonies.

Wilson is as much a musical academic as a practitioner and the remaining pieces on the programme both benefited from his insatiable musicological curiosity. Gershwin’s An American in Paris was composed in 1928, but after the composer’s untimely death it was published in a heavily edited version by another hand, and this is the music we have grown to love. Wilson has now retrieved the manuscript source and reinstated 86 bars of music as well as returning many other details to their original form. It wasn’t clear if this was its London, even UK premiere, whether modern-day or otherwise, but in any case it was fascinating to hear this music for the first time – most notably a couple of larger chunks towards the tone poem’s end. In any case this was one of the most exuberant performances one could imagine: the car horns duly poop-poop-pooped, but James Fountain’s louche trumpet solos stole the day.

Lastly, a rare chance to hear Ravel’s Boléro in its original theatre version, which Wilson and the orchestra recorded last year and which adds stereophonic side drums, castanets and a few other details to the published concert score. It’s hard to imagine any piece starting so pin-droppingly quietly as when the side drum player began his rhythm and when the solo flautist picked up the melody with such delicacy that one hardly dared breathe. The gradual crescendo to the overwhelming conclusion was as carefully paced as it was inevitable, with Wilson’s signature transparency revealing so many details usually lost in the mix en route. A concert that left one with one’s ears ringing in the best way.