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CD Review

Frederick Fennell

Plays British and American Works for Band

  • Gustav Holst:
  • Suite #1 in E Flat Major, Op. 28a
  • Suite #2 in F Major, Op. 28b
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams:
  • Folk Song Suite
  • Toccata Marziale
  • Peter Mennin: Canzona
  • Vincent Persichetti: Psalm
  • H. Owen Reed: La Fiesta Mexicana
Eastman Wind Ensemble/Frederick Fennell
Mercury Living Presence 462960-2 Mono 71:12
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Summary for the Busy Executive: At last.

Classic performances by the ne plus ultra band and bandleader of the postwar era. In many instances, the accounts have never been bettered, even at this late date. I've been waiting like Patience on a monument for these recordings to be re-released. Indeed, I couldn't see why Philips and Polygram didn't rush these out as soon as possible. The jewel box may have provided the clue. Right on the back are the four dreaded letters "MONO." I've loved these performances for so long, it never occurred to me even to notice whether they were in stereo or not. The sound, at any rate, is quite fine. Don't be put off by a trivial point. I've heard no recorded performance of the Holst or the Vaughan Williams pieces with the bite and vigor of these. Denis Wick provided acceptable stopgaps, but this release supersedes his accounts, bland in comparison.

Fennell did much to popularize the concert wind ensemble in the U.S. And to raise American notions of wind band repertoire. Even now, when most Americans think of the wind ensemble, they think of marching bands at high-school and college football games, rather than of Mozart's Serenade #10 or of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The Goldman Band, the spiritual ancestor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, with much the same repertoire, confined its activities mainly to the east coast and had nothing like Fennell's recording schedule. Fennell also wrote a book on wind band music, Time and the Winds, that in many ways set the serious repertoire for these forces.

The Holst suites come from 1908 and 1910. Fennell claims the earlier suite as "the first significant work for the wind band written in the 20th century." It may be true, for all I know. Holst had written at least two earlier chamber works featuring winds, but these represent his first mature productions. Both works come after Holst discovers English folk song as a means to finding personal expression, and both show Holst's ruthless elegance of expression, as if he had a holy horror of wasting a note. But their similarity ends there. The first suite, to all intents and purposes, has only one theme (a Holst original), which from which Holst builds three movements: a chaconne, a rapid double-time scherzo, and a quick march. The character of each differs radically from the other: a noble first movement, a light-fantastic second, and a swaggering third. The second suite uses Hampshire folk tunes as its basic material, but it is a no less original piece than the first. The settings, elegant as Fabergé, seem made with a mind to providing the "best possible" context of the tunes. Indeed, all the movements take your breath away, especially the last two - "Song of the Blacksmith" and "Fantasia on the Dargason." Holst has two surprises. He begins "Song of the Blacksmith" with the main accent off-the-beat, so that when the tune finally comes in, your inner feet have to do a little skip to readjust. The finale, a contrapuntal tour-de-force, pits the "Dargason" (also known, at least in the U.S., as "The Irish Washerwoman") against "Greensleeves." Who knew these tunes went together? Holst had, I think, a justifiable pride in the second suite, since he used it as the basis of other works - notably, the choral Six Folksongs - and arranged the "Fantasia" finale for strings as the conclusion to his St. Paul's Suite.

The Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite of 1924, standing beside the Holst, comes across as far more relaxed - a holiday good time. In its full orchestration by Gordon Jacob, it has become one of the composer's best-known works, but the original scoring, which I prefer, has more grit. To some extent, it's one of those pieces Vaughan Williams wrote to get English folk songs out to a wider audience. The structure of each movement is generally pretty simple. Nevertheless, Vaughan Williams has such a marvelous sense of harmony and such a great ear for a tune, the work seduces totally. I can't think of a dull bar in it. From the opening brass fanfares to the insouciance of the finale, the piece evokes images of mounted guardsmen, band shells in Bath, kids with pennywhistles, and even the elegiac promptings of night. The Toccata Marziale (again, 1924) shows the composer working much harder, essentially inventing a polyphonic band idiom of such immense rhythmic and harmonic sophistication that it influences pieces written decades later. I think a case could be made of its influence on the American Peter Mennin, particularly on his Canzona of 1951, commissioned by the Goldman Band. Mennin and Vaughan Williams share the contrapuntal (as opposed to chorale or melody-accompaniment) approach to wind writing and both use the counterpoint as a means of generating rhythmic excitement. Mennin's orchestration sounds brighter and cleaner than the older composer's, and the idiom comes through as a bit nervous, perhaps even jittery. But it does indeed get the blood running.

Persichetti is a major player in contributing to the modern repertoire for wind band, as opposed to the occasional dabbler, with several large works, including at least one symphony, for this ensemble. The Psalm appeared a year after Mennin's Canzona. Why Persichetti called it a "psalm" I have no idea. It certainly doesn't use the conventional idioms of religious music, and it doesn't call to mind any particular psalm. The solemn opening Persichetti calls a "chorale," but it's definitely a chorale filtered through Stravinsky. Persichetti lays out the work in three large sections, each in a noticeably faster tempo, culminating in a brilliant, electrifying allegro molto, which at the very end recapitulates themes from throughout the work. It clocks in at a hefty 8 minutes, but it also takes you on a thrill ride. Like a really good roller coaster, it makes you want to ride again as soon as it's over.

H. Owen Reed has also contributed many works for band and has a special place in the hearts of high-school and college players. However, compared to similar pieces by Copland, Bowles, Moross, to say nothing of works by Revueltas, La Fiesta Mexicana (subtitled "Mexican Folk Song Symphony") is pretty small beer. The tunes are expertly arranged, the structure sound enough, and the wind writing capable, but nothing here gets your jaw to drop - no individually imaginative approach to the material or a compositional technique beyond competent. To me, despite the addition of harp and extra percussion, it sounds rather bland.

The sound, once again, is mono, but not "historic." The instruments sound like their real-life selves rather than crammed in a tin box. The performances are all knock-outs. Fennell's articulation of rhythm electrifies. I haven't heard better accounts of the Holst and Vaughan Williams works. I pass on the Reed, but I'm a stinker. Others have found it delightful. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz