January 11, 2018
(++++) CELEBRATING WINDS
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 17. Guildhall Symphonic Wind Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
Frank Martin: Music for Winds. Massachusetts Chamber Players conducted by Matthew Westgate. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Wind Quintet by Mike Titlebaum, Paquito D’Rivera, Astor Piazzolla, Martin Kutnowski, and Leonard Bernstein. Ventus Machina (Karin Aurell, flutes and piccolo; Christie Goodwin, oboe and English horn; James Kalyn, clarinet; Ulises Aragon, French horn; Patrick Bolduc, bassoon). MSR Classics. $12.95.
French Flute Music. Michelle Batty Stanley, flute; Margaret McDonald, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Keith Brion continues his fascinating survey of the music of John Philip Sousa, using wind ensembles worldwide, by conducting a student wind band in the series’ 17th volume. And the Guildhall Symphonic Wind Band, from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, proves as adept with this repertoire as the professional and military bands that Brion has conducted in previous Naxos volumes. Furthermore, this band gets an interesting assignment: there are no famed Sousa marches here, and in fact no marches at all, even though one work – a world première recording – bears the rather awkward title, March of the Pan Americans—Part I. This, it turns out, is the first of two works Sousa wrote in 1915 to present, in alphabetical sequence, the national anthems of various independent countries of the Americas as of that year. The result is that Costa Rica, Cuba and Honduras, for example, are represented, while Canada (then closely allied to Great Britain) is not. This is the longest but least of the five pieces heard on this recording. The other four span a period of 40 years and are much better showcases for Sousa’s wind-scoring skill. The Smugglers—Quintet of 1882 is drawn from one of the composer’s earliest operettas and is nicely arranged for five wind players. The Salute of the Nations to the Columbian Exhibition (1893) was written only a year after Sousa formed his own touring band and was designed to showcase the band’s skill at the Chicago World’s Fair, where the band got equal billing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – a major milestone. Like March of the Pan Americans, this work is packed with tunes associated with specific countries, but The Salute of the Nations to the Columbian Exhibition treats the material more symphonically and more impressively. And there is greater variety and musical interest to the material, thanks to the inclusion of music from France, England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia, Scotland and Spain as well as the United States. Also on this CD is The American Maid—Suite (1913), taken from a later Sousa operetta that was distinguished for including film footage in the stage presentation (a real rarity at the time). And then, most amusingly, this disc includes Humoresque: A Mingling of the Wets and Drys (1922), a gentle sendup of Prohibition (of which Sousa, who enjoyed the occasional alcoholic drink, did not approve). Listeners who recognize all the tunes in this pastiche will find the work very funny indeed, and even those who do not know all of them will surely recognize some: Tea for Two, How Dry I Am, Brown October Ale, The Old Oaken Bucket, and Auld Lang Syne all make appearances, along with the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust. The upbeat nature of the music and the good humor with which Sousa puts the tunes together are amply reflected on this disc in performances that show just how skillful Sousa was in wind compositions that go beyond the marches for which he is famous.
Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) wrote only one wind-focused work that has retained a fair degree of popularity: Concerto pour sept instruments à vent, timbales, batterie et orchestre à cordes (1949), which, as its title indicates, includes percussion and strings as well. But it turns out that Martin had more skill in wind composition than is generally realized, as Matthew Westgate and the Massachusetts Chamber Players show on a new MSR Classics release. None of the three works heard here is likely to be particularly familiar to listeners – indeed, none of Martin’s music is exceptionally popular – but all three show solid grounding in composition for wind instruments and an ability to meld and contrast their varying sounds with skill and effectiveness. The earliest piece here is Concerto Pour les Instruments à Vent et le Piano (1924), whose two movements are very much of their time in the way they combine piccolo, flute, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, two trombones, percussion and piano, and in Martin’s use of dissonance and rhythmic variation. Zwischen Rhone und Rhein (1939), the official march of the Swiss National Exhibition, is strong and forthright and makes an interesting contrast with Sousa’s music for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The longest and most substantial piece here is Concert Suite from Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943, a rather peculiar assemblage of 10 short movements in which, unsurprisingly for a wartime work, references to death are pervasive. Indeed, eight of the movements have “death” in their titles: Death with the Old Man, Dance of Death with the Mother and her Child, Dance of Death with the Athlete, Death with the Rich Man, Dance of Death Alone, Dance of Death with the Young Girl, Dance of Death with the Self-Murderer, and Dance of Death with the Beautiful Lady. Only the opening Introduction: March of the Drums and an Intermezzo halfway through the suite omit the word, but death is never musically distant from any of the material here. Yet the work is not entirely lugubrious, although neither is it as clever as somewhat similar works by Sibelius (Valse triste) or Saint-Saëns (Danse macabre). Martin’s scoring is for four clarinets, five saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, contrabass, percussion and piano, and it is the skillful use of the saxophones and the clarinets’ lower register that stands out. There is a burnished quality to the wind writing here, and Martin’s adept way with the different instruments’ sounds makes this a very interesting piece that transcends its time. Indeed, although it was written at the height of World War II, the dance-and-mime show from which this suite is taken was based on 15th-century murals that showed Death more as a benign force than as a terrifying character – and that underlying benignity comes through in Martin’s music.
Wind-focused anthology discs, like most anthology offerings, tend to be more of a mixed bag than CDs exploring a single composer’s work in greater depth. These discs are often more about the instruments and performers than the music, and frequently include commissioned pieces designed to show off those instruments and those performers. Such is the case with a (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring the Canadian ensemble that calls itself Ventus Machina. The recording includes two under-10-minute pieces commissioned by the ensemble, Short Set (2016) by Mike Titlebaum (born 1968) and Tonadas y Mateadas (2015) by Martin Kutnowski (also born 1968). Both the pieces are pleasant, largely inconsequential offerings that nicely show off the ensemble members’ abilities and provide the players with opportunities to showcase their performance skill both individually and together. The seven-movement suite, Aires Tropical (1994), by Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, is a considerably more interesting work, its brief dance movements nicely contrasted as to rhythm and instrumental combinations. Also here are two nicely done arrangements of comparatively familiar music: William Scribner’s of Milonga sin Palabras (1981) by Ástor Piazzolla and Richard Price’s, from 1989, of three excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 Broadway hit, West Side Story. Ventus Machina handles everything with panache and suitable enthusiasm, but the disc has the feeling of a pastiche rather than a well-ordered exploration of relevant repertoire. Still, it will be enjoyable for listeners looking for a collection of rather light material handled by a skillful wind ensemble.
A (+++) Navona CD with a wind focus is specifically for listeners interested in the flute at its most graceful and lyrical. There are 12 pieces here by seven French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries who are scarcely household names – but a few of whose works are reasonably well-known. The composers are René de Boisdeffre, Philippe Gaubert, Émile Bernard, Émile Pessard, Alphonse Catherine, Victor-Alphonse Duvernoy, and Joseph-Henri Altès. The music is presented in no particular order – Gaubert’s three works, for example, are second, sixth and last on the disc – which adds to the “potpourri” feeling of the production. This is the sort of release for which it is best just to sit back and let the music flow, which it does very nicely indeed. Michelle Batty Stanley has fine breath control and offers subtlety in playing and a strong sense of the long, lyrical lines that make a number of these works appealing. Margaret McDonald provides apt, careful backup, although the music here is so flute-focused that the piano has less a partnership than a strictly supporting role. But, again, this will be of little consequence to listeners whose interest is simply in hearing a succession of well-crafted, pleasant flute works from a particular country and time period. The most-substantive work here is Gaubert’s Sonata No. 1, which explores multiple moods in its three movements. But other pieces that simply dip into a single feeling are every bit as pleasant to hear, if not exactly emotionally trenchant. The Arabesque and Barcarolle by Catherine and the Romance by Bernard, for example, fall into the unpretentious-salon-music category. Taken all together, these works come across as enjoyable, rather shallow background music, or as pieces that are easy to absorb and enjoy without requiring listeners to do more than let the well-crafted, well-played wind tunes wash a cascade of note sequences over them.