Andrew Palmer, Group Editor

Classical Music: Rachmaninoff


Symphony No. 3, Vocalise (orch. composer); The Isle of the Dead.

John Wilson. Sinfonia of London
Leader: Charlie Lovell-Jones leader

Chandos CHSA 5297


It was that great journalist and columnist, Bernard Levin, who wrote in his superb book Enthusiasms: ‘One of the important qualities of enthusiasm is the desire to communicate it; indeed, it is a very good test of the strength of any enthusiasm, for who, enjoying in more than common measure something that is readily available, does not wish others to enjoy it too?

Hear! Hear!

I need to communicate the enthusiasm I have for the recordings that John Wilson produces on the Chandos label. It is difficult to write anything other than a superlative and I look forward to the next recording as soon as I have completed the current one.

Why is this?

Wilson understands aesthetics and he can convey the beauty contained within a score; exquisitely phrased, excellently crafted dynamics, each crescendo and diminuendo always subtly controlled and where there is tension, it is always stylishly developed.

This all-Rachmaninoff disc begins with his tone poem Isle of the Dead inspired by the Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin. The painting depicts a ferryman rowing a coffin towards the Isle of the Dead, and Rachmaninoff, unusually setting the piece in five beats to the bar, captures the atmosphere and the motion of oars in the water in the most extraordinary detail. From the outset the quiet and measured playing immediately invokes the image of a small boat rowing across an expanse of dark water.

Everything is subtle, the foreboding portrayed well as the Sinfonia of London gradually builds the tension to a climax.

David Fanning writes that the piece is equally remarkable for its impassioned central section – perhaps depicting the anguish of a soul recalling the intensity of a life which it is about to leave behind forever. This is revealed through excellent string playing but also the whole orchestral colouring and texture creating an emotional soundscape. As the destination is reached and the oarsman returns to the mysterious shadowy world, the piece ends as it began with some of the finest pianissimo playing. If you can look at the painting, either the black and white one that inspired the composer or colour, whilst the music is playing, the storytelling element of the tone poem will undoubtedly transfix you.

In the five minutes, it takes Wilson to direct Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise he immediately portrays an excellent reading; pace, phrasing, and dynamics, bring out the loveliness of this piece. In the hands of this skilled conductor and the Sinfonia of London it is like a flower about to open in the morning sunshine, as together they ensure the harmonies and sophisticated elegance are developed until in full bloom the piece shimmers in undiluted magnificence.

Following the Russian revolution and his exile to the USA, the compositional output of Rachmaninoff declined dramatically. In great demand both as a virtuoso performer and as a conductor, he toured extensively, but struggled to incorporate ‘modern music’ into his compositional style. In the mid-1930s he acquired a holiday villa in Lucerne and surprised the world with his ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody, quickly followed by the Third Symphony.

Not content with already producing two alluring performances, the three movement third Symphony continues the trend. Once again Wilson weaves his magic with delightful string and woodwind playing. The horn and harp begin a wonderful adagio and as the movement develops the themes the orchestra ensemble is once again striking. Wilson’s sense of moment shines through as the Sinfonia of London respond to his requests, his deployment of Ritardando and rallentando are as always superbly judged.

I think by now you can tell I am a huge fan of John Wilson, the Sinfonia of London and their collaboration with Chandos, it goes from strength to strength. Each recording is outstanding, and this one is no exception.