English Music for Strings
L Berkeley: Serenade for Strings; Bliss: Music for Strings; Bridge: Lament; Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5264 (CD/SACD) 64:46 mins
The cover painting on this delectable album is very striking. A 1930s English modernist house; geometric blocks; an optimistic sun deck. No pastoral softenings or Cotswold charm here. Nor do they feature in the music itself, all deriving from the same decade except Bridge’s little Lament, inspired by a child’s death in the Lusitania sinking of 1915. Here in this track is a prime example of the heartfelt precision and beauty of tone that typifies John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London. There’s plenty of heart, too, in their superlative treatment of Britten’s marvellous Bridge variations, warmly delivered even during the parody character pieces clustered together in the first half. Listen to the silky third variation (‘Romance’) or any of the soulful outpourings featuring Bridge’s own instrument, the viola: gorgeous.
Wilson’s team prove equally adroit in Berkeley’s Serenade, whose neo-classical sprightliness is gradually punctured by sorrow and anguish understandable in a work written under the shadow of an approaching war. Oddly enough, the piece that least suits the cover’s modernist house, a building designed for Arthur Bliss in the mid 1930s, is Bliss’s own Music for Strings, created at the same time. Despite his early reputation as one of Britain’s advanced guard, Bliss was really a muscular romantic; and that’s the element stressed in Wilson’s committed account of the one work here that is easy to admire but rather less so to love. Nothing, however, stops us adoring the Sinfonia’s warmth and finesse.