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Michael BALL
Whitsun Wakes
An English suite
Midsummer Music (Sonata for Brass)
Chaucerís Tunes
A Cambrian Suite

Black Dyke Band/Nicholas J. Childs
Recorded Morley Town Hall, 2002, DDD
DOYEN DOYCD135 [64: 53]

Stylistically, none of the works on this disc provide any real evidence of Ballís studies during the early 1970s with Franco Donatoni in Italy, nor of his attendance at the master classes of Ligeti and Berio at around the same time. Rather, one assumes that during a period away from composition in the mid to late 1970s a stylistic re-evaluation took place. The emerging music is unashamedly melodic and approachable, indeed "English" as the booklet notes point out.

The musical weight of this disc is principally carried by Whitsun Wakes, written by Ball in response to a BBC commission and first performed by the Black Dyke Band during the BBC Music Live! Festival, held at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester in May 1997. The venue of the premiere was a fortuitous coincidence given the composerís Mancunian roots coupled with the inspiration behind the piece, the Wakes Week holiday of Ballís youth. This was when Lancashire factories would shut down and families traditionally packed their suitcases and departed for their annual seaside holiday.

In Whitsun Wakes Ball has fortunately managed to avoid falling into the trap that has afflicted so many other "test pieces" of recent vintage, namely the compromise of the music itself in favour of sheer technical difficulty. Not that the piece is a virtuosic stroll Ė far from it. As well as the technical challenges there are contrasting sections of sheer fun, genuine melodic beauty, gloriously rich and haunting sonorities and even a few hymn tunes, a reference to the church processional parades that were the origins of the Whit holidays. Much of the success of the work is in the fact that Ball has skilfully packed a great deal of incident into sixteen minutes without the feeling that the piece has become "overcrowded".

In comparison the other works somewhat fail to live up to expectation, the notable exception being the shortest piece, Cortege, a heartfelt elegy in memory of Herbert Howells with whom Ball studied at the Royal College of Music. The harmonic and melodic similes that Ball weaves into his music are both clear and poignant and the solo cornet part (Ball originally wrote it for the flugel horn player Mark Walters) is here beautifully performed by Roger Webster.

The title of Midsummer Music (Sonata for Brass) is derived from ĎA Midsummer Nightís Dreamí although conforms to a classical sonata in structure whilst Chaucerís Tunes was originally scored for wind band and is effectively a suite of six continuously played sections that can also be played individually with alternative endings. Both pieces, whilst melodically attractive enough, are ultimately unremarkable. The light hearted Cambrian Suite and English Suite on the other hand are unpretentious yet enjoyable, the former utilising the tunes Men of Harlech, Cradle Song and The Rising of the Lark, with An English Suite being loosely modelled on Holstís A Moorside Suite, hence the opening Scherzo and Nocturne. Both of these pieces have been used as test pieces in youth band championships and no doubt their sunny character will ensure their continued success in this sphere.

The Black Dyke Band are on splendid form under the able direction of Nicholas Childs and it is their impressive performance of Whitsun Wakes that ultimately makes this disc recommendable.

Christopher Thomas.

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