© Chris Green, April 2021

English Music for Strings

Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge op. 10

Bridge: Lament H 117

Berkeley: Serenade for Strings op. 12

Bliss: Music for Strings F 123

Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5264 • 65' • (SACD)
Recorded: January 2020, Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London


It seems like another era when, as a youngster. I would be allowed to choose from a monthly catalogue of long-playing records released by The World Record Club. This venture during the 1950s was one of a number of so-called “record clubs” that sought to make the most of the developing market for long-playin g records. Some of the clubs would market recordings by soloists, orchestras and conductors whose names must have been constructed after many pints of liquor.

However, with the World Record Club, performances of familiar and less familiar music were often played by an unknown orchestra called the Sinfonia of London especially created for the purpose by this club I think. It soon became apparent that the Sinfonia was a band of free-lance musicians comprising some of the best in London at the time, and what performances they turned out.

The name disappeared until recently when it was resurrected by that enterprising conductor, John Wilson. Made up of session musicians, the performances then and now were of the highest calibre and the new Chandos release English Music for Strings brings Wilson and the Sinfonia together for a quartet of major works by Britten and his friends and contemporaries.

Sinfonia of London in January 2020 in Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London

English composers are not the only ones who have exploited the genre of string music –after all, Tchaikovsky, Suk and Dvorak followed by Respighi and Stravinsky and others have made a significant contribution. However, there always seems to me something in the English psyche that feels at home with string music and the quartet of composers represented by this release shows why. Each of the works is so different in still but all using the same medium.

The programme starts off with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (one of his teachers), and the 1937 piece is an object lesson in instrumental scoring with its brilliant exploits of the orchestra. Bridge makes an appearance with a 1915 Lament as does Lennox Berkeley with his Serenade for Strings whilst Music for Strings by Sir Arthur Bliss completes the programme. The latter is typical Bliss- sadly neglected – with bold and quite “thick” scoring presenting a challenge to the players in 1935 when it was first performed, and even now because of its unfamiliarity. The Kilburn church recording in stereo and surround sound is faultless with sufficient resonance to provide space around this great ensemble.