Classical Music

Sit back and wallow in the splendor of it all. We finally have a worth successor to Charles Gerhardt in this music.

Chandos seems to be letting John Wilson do whatever he wants. And why not – they’re selling tons of CDs. His dabblings in Richard Strauss, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and even Respighi, are surely keeping his orchestra engaged, but as good as they are, would not necessarily be first choices for serious collectors to turn to. This newest one however – Hollywood Soundstage – is another matter entirely. THIS is what John Wilson does best. And his orchestra sounds like they’re enjoying every minute of it. And it is, in a word, sensational.

While I anticipated this one of cinematic music would be fabulous (and it is), I nonetheless approached it with my usual objectivity, with reviewer’s hat firmly in place.

After the opening brass fanfares of the Korngold Overture, the sweeping, rhapsodic violins, intense with super-duper hyper vibrato, instantly drew me in and I forgot all about reviewing. Instead, I leaned back, relaxed in my comfy chair, and let the excess of it wash over me. And I enjoyed myself immensely, indulging in the luxurious splendor.

I hardly need to say a word about how fabulous this orchestra is. And certainly this is John Wilson at his absolute finest. But what I must emphatically state right up front is that Chandos Records is unquestionably the star of this show. This is far and away one of their very best orchestral recordings. The midrange, sometimes a bit over-ripe with this orchestra, is spacious, detailed and textured – yet rich, colorful and unabashedly gorgeous. And at last they have minimized the boominess in the upper bass. It sounds like the mics have been moved back from their usual position which tended to emphasize the basses with a boosted presence and unnatural forwardness. Instead, we hear realistic, full-bodied, potent bass without a hint of bloat. And the upper range is sparkling and airy, with silky, vibrant, gloriously full string tone.

Dynamics, too, are very impressive, with crescendos that swell magnificently without a hint of compression or strain. The entire orchestra simply fills the hall with rich, expansive washes of sound. I’ll go so far as to proclaim this as one of the best recordings of a full symphony orchestra I have heard in ages. If there were ever a demonstration of the superiority of SACD over CD, this recording is it.

I initially had slight misgivings with some of the musical selections chosen for this collection. Of all the grand Hollywood scores to choose from, Wizard of Oz certainly wouldn’t have been on my short list. Nor would a 3-minute excerpt from My Fair lady. (The disc plays for just 60 minutes; surely another expanded suite was warranted.) But I was thrilled to see many of the others – from Korngold, Waxman, Steiner and Newman. However, listening to the entire program from start to finish, it is clear they combine to make a splendid concert. As it turns out, all of this music was perfectly chosen; the variety is marvelously engaging, interesting and thoroughly enjoyable.

For example, after the imposing opening track, Raksin’s lovely Laura theme is a welcome respite, with glamorous violins shimmering with that unusual, very fast vibrato Wilson coaxes from them in these sessions, followed by sensuous trombone solos on Harmon mute (seductively played here). And the grand waltz in the central section can’t help but whisk one away.

And so it goes throughout the program, with endless variety and bountiful sonic luster to titillate the senses, and grandiose orchestral melodrama alternating with sensitive solo playing. The one relative disappointment comes in Johnny Mandel’s Sandpiper theme, in which the trumpet solo here sounds a bit stiff rather than sexy.

I expected this release to be good, but feared it might be a little overblown and over-the-top. (And perhaps the hyper violin vibrato veers in that direction.) But that was not the case. Far from it. There is grandeur and splendor aplenty but also delicacy and tenderness, along with rapturous musical expression. All captured in the most sumptuous acoustic one could imagine.

Ultimately, what we have here is a teaser for what could possibly be the rebirth of the late, great Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores series from the 70s on RCA. What an unforgettable and treasurable collection that was; and no one could match him in that repertoire. But there is no denying those classic recordings have not aged terribly well and sound rather dated now (especially in climaxes), despite painstaking remastering attempts by SONY and Dutton. We have desperately needed new recordings of all this music in modern, state-of-the-art digital sound. And now, at last, Chandos gives us a sampling of what is possible. While these are not the monumental, epic film scores that Gerhardt championed (and Wilson doesn’t utilize a chorus like Gerhardt often did), they are tantalizingly close. 

I have just one simple closing sentiment: Chandos, please – PLEASE – record more of this! If Wilson must branch out into more serious orchestral fare along the way, fine – have at it. But please schedule a bunch of his time for more Hollywood film score albums. There is no better combination for this music than John Wilson, The London Sinfonia and Chandos Records.  

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