When William Booth heard a rousing song to the words “Bless His Name, He set me free” he asked what the tune was called. He was told that it was usually sung to the words “Champagne Charlie is my name”, and made the immortal reply “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”. Since then the Salvation Army has taken and used tunes from a multitude of secular sources for its purposes, even if nowadays copyright prevents a wholesale takeover of currently popular tunes. The present disc has one of the Army’s best bands playing a variety of (non-copyright) music arranged for inclusion in their concerts and services. Although I always enjoy the playing of Salvation Army bands it is usually in outdoor and informal settings, and it is a great pleasure to hear what these very experienced musicians are capable of in a different context.
In many ways it reminds me most of my first real experience of live music making, listening to bands in the park playing popular Overtures, selections and arrangements of well known classical pieces. Memory is seldom reliable but I am sure that the playing on this disc is far superior to anything that I heard then. The Enfield Citadel Band is indeed not just one of the Salvation Army’s best bands, but one of the best brass bands of any kind in England. It is good to hear them in this mixture of transcriptions and arrangements, even if not all are equally enjoyable.
To start with the best, given the amazingly light and imaginative orchestration of the original you might expect an arrangement of the “Beatrice and Benedict” Overture to be a disaster. Although it does take a few moments for the listener to get used to the rather different character the music is given, it then becomes rapidly obvious that it is possible to achieve a similarly light and airy effect, albeit by very different means. This is a true virtuoso showpiece in this form, and it must have taken much rehearsal to achieve these results. Provided that you can accept the basic reworking of the soundworld of the music, similar success is achieved in the Dukas and Mendelssohn items and in the Mozart Overture. The solo items, all played by two soloists who are both members of London orchestras and also Salvationists, are also enjoyable, especially the Guilmant, originally a Conservatoire test piece. The Queen of the Night’s aria works well enough on the piccolo trumpet, but “Sound an alarm” does not really suit the trombone. It is simply too heavy, although Dudley Bright’s playing, here and in the Guilmant, shows a variety of tone and articulation that is not always expected from the trombone. It might have been better also to have arranged this item for trumpet. The latter two movements of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto however work well in this context – the change from a string based accompaniment to a brass band causes much less disruption to the music than you might expect and Christopher Deacon’s playing is full of imaginative touches.
Of the remainder, most are straightforward arrangements, to the listener at least, but the so-called “Themes from the New World Symphony” is exactly what the title says – in effect “Highlights” from the Symphony. I know that it may sound stuffy to say so, and that some people will want to hear the rest of the Symphony after hearing it done in this way, but frankly I regard the damage done to the work’s structure as so great as to make what remains ineffectual. I would happily have exchanged it for such items of early Salvationist music mentioned in the booklet as Bramwell Coles’ “Moments with Tchaikovsky” although I accept that in technical terms the transcription of the Dvorak for brass band is certainly very well done and well played.
If like me you find the sound of a very fine brass band playing arrangements of “the great classics” both nostalgic and enjoyable in itself you will certainly want this disc. Others may be more guarded in their response, but I would be surprised if anyone was other than impressed by the musicianship and enthusiasm of the playing.