The reborn Sinfonia of London, previously a pick-up band from the mid-20th century whose glories were enshrined on EMI Records by Sir John Barbirolli, more than lives up to its heritage. In essence, Sinfonia Mark II is the John Wilson Orchestra by another name, but in collars and cuffs with less razzmatazz than its alter ego. Dazzling virtuosity all the same; no change there.

Pavel Kolesnikov and the Sinfonia of London
© Shoel Stadlen | Britten Pears Arts

John Wilson has a talent for wrangling his band of moonlighting orchestral players and freelancers so that together they touch the stars; but there is much more to him even than that. His conducting of familiar works is revelatory; his ability to tease out neglected scores invaluable. The first of the Sinfonia’s two concerts for Snape’s 2021 Britten Weekend was a case in point. Few of those present at the Maltings will have been familiar with John Ireland’s Mai-Dun (1921), his 13-minute evocation of an ancient fort in Dorset, but this was music to swoon to. It began with all the swagger of a JWO Hollywood excavation before giving way to a gorgeous passage for the violas (rapturous inner strings are a Wilson speciality) and an unashamed romance. A finish as grand as ‘The End’ on a silver screen made Mai-Dun a hard act to follow.

Follow it they did, though, with a knockout one-two of key works by Britten and Vaughan Williams. The latter’s A London Symphony (no. 2) received a magical performance in the resplendent Maltings acoustic, with Wilson’s ability to conjure the first rays of dawn out of nothing matched only by the slow fade into silence that closed his reading. During the intervening 45 minutes he gave us a tone poem in four movements that juxtaposed the literal (Big Ben chimes; bustling London with pre-echoes of Consider Yourself) with the impressionistic (a sumptuous Lento second movement with transcendent solo playing by the principal viola player, sadly anonymous in the current post-paper-programme era). A mournful trumpet solo made this RVW’s Old World Symphony. The music, which only slips into post-Edwardian sententiousness during the Finale in an Elgarian passage of chordal progression, could not have been better or more movingly served.

The same goes for Pavel Kolesnikov’s galloping account of Britten’s Piano Concerto, a familiar work within the four walls of its composer’s own concert hall but one seldom if ever, I’d guess, performed there by a rumpled schoolboy in trainers. One could almost hear the Suffolk worthies exhort this recalcitrant teenager (he is actually 32 but disconcertingly youthful of mien) to tuck his shirt in. Thirty minutes later they were stamping their feet for an encore. 

So good is the Sinfonia of London that there were fleeting touches in Wilson’s account I’d never noticed before, while Kolesnikov’s virtuosity could have been mistaken for showboating simply because he played with such élan. The London-based Russian’s elasticated pianism in the opening movement recalled a Tom and Jerry cartoon; his way with the lolloping Waltz that followed provoked wry chuckles. Wilson’s marvellous string players captured the mournfulness of the Impromptu’s descending figure before Kolesnikov delivered the Finale with bumble-bee precision, added a quick cooldown with a Chopin Mazurka and then… That’s all, folks.

Mark's accommodation in Snape was funded by Britten Pears Arts