John Wilson revives the Sinfonia of London

Martin Cullingford Thu 12th September 2019

Conductor begins project with Korngold album

John Wilson: relaunching the Sinfonia of London (photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

John Wilson: relaunching the Sinfonia of London (photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Conductor John Wilson has revived a classic orchestra from the past century, the Sinfonia of London, drawing on some of the leading players from London-based ensembles to make one-off recording projects. 

The Sinfonia of London was founded in 1955 by flautist Gordon Walker, drawing away many players of the London Symphony Orchestra, to record soundtracks. Among its most memorable albums was a recording with Sir John Barbirolli of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Serenade for Strings, and Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Greensleeves, issued on HMV in 1963. In its initial incarnation it closed soon after, but was revived in 1982 by Howard Blake for the soundtrack of The Snowman, subsequently recording further soundtracks. 

Now, under Wilson, it will focus on making recordings for Chandos. Wilson already has a strong relationship with the label, focussed around composers including Copland, Richard Rodney Bennett and Eric Coates. But Wilson and Chandos were keen to make albums of repertoire that didn’t fit into such composer-based series, and so Wilson decided to create a flexible group of musicians to undertake them. 

And what a group: the first gatherings of players includes, says Wilson, leaders of more than 10 other orchestras, many section principals and members of leading quartets. Despite the illustrious line-up, Wilson is keen to stress: ‘it’s not in any sense a scratch band – these are people I’ve had long-standing relationships with, some going back 30 years. We all know one another. There are dialogues between me and the section principals about who they work effectively alongside. So when we get in the room together there is a lot of shared knowledge already there.’ 

The impressive results can be heard on the project’s first release featuring Korngold’s Symphony, an Editor’s Choice in the October issue of Gramophone, with Richard Bratby praising the ‘weighty, satin string tone, the skyscraping brass and questioning woodwinds’.

For Wilson, the orchestra’s name has a strong emotional resonance: ‘When I was 11, Barbirolli’s ‘English String Music’ with the Sinfonia of London was the first LP I ever bought. I cherished that record … If I had one desert island disc, it would be that.’ (He’s in good company: reviewing it in Gramophone on its release, Trevor Harvey described it as ‘a recording that can only be called splendiferous’.) 

Despite the ensemble’s heritage, Wilson says there are no plans to record soundtracks though: ‘We have very clear aims, which is to make gramophone records – which I know is a sort of old fashioned concept – we’re just very, very slowly and steadily hoping to build up a catalogue of interesting records.’ The next release, due early 2020 and already recorded, will be of French orchestral works by Chabrier, Ibert, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Duruflé and Ravel.

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