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Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
Music for Wind Band
Divertimento op. 42 (1950) [11:22]
Psalm op. 53 (1952) [8:48]
O God Unseen - Chorale Prelude op. 160 (1984) [9:04]
Pageant op. 59 (1953) [7:42]
Masquerade op. 102 (1965) [13:14]
O Cool is the Valley op. 118 (1971) [6:08]
Parable - Poem op. 121 (1972) [18:13]
Winds of the London Symphony Orchestra/David Amos
rec. Abbey Road Studio 1, London, 13-14 April 1993
Originally released on Harmonia Mundi in 1994
Naxos Wind Band Classics edition 2006

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To one who lives in Philadelphia, Vincent Persichetti is a local composer. Not in the sense of being unworthy of national or international fame, but because his life is so closely associated with this city and its institutions and because reminders of him abound here. Within half a mile of where I am writing this are two of the schools where he studied, two of the schools where he taught, the location of his first musical position and the musical venues where so many of his works were premiered. There are many here who can still tell stories about him. His choral music especially is frequently in evidence here.

One area of composition that Persichetti was especially associated with was music for symphonic band. With the possible exception of Paul Creston, no American concert composer has made such a substantial contribution to this field. Altogether he wrote fourteen significant works in this medium (not counting works for smaller brass groups) and a number of them occupy a permanent place in the American symphonic band repertoire. On this record we hear about half of his band output, including the famous Divertimento for Band and the Parable IX, but not the well-known Symphony for Band or Serenade #11.

The choice of music played here shows the range of complexity of the composer’s symphonic band works, f rom the relatively easy high school simplicity of the Psalm and Pageant to the Parable, one of the composer’s most challenging works in any medium and certainly one of the two major works of his band output.  

Persichetti’s first band work was the Divertimento of 1950. This exemplifies one of the major tendencies in this composer’s work - his preference for works or movements in small epigrammatic sections (see Parables). Overall I found this a good performance, but two or three of the sections, especially the Soliloquy, made me reach for the old LP of the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell. This old version will remain the standard for this piece.

Psalm and Pageant were written within a year of each other and both feature chorale style, although in different ways. The Psalm is basically a large chorale showing off the lower brass and later clarinets and saxophones and is a beautiful example of the composer’s ability in scoring for winds. Pageant was a piece that was unknown to me and I greatly enjoyed it. It is based on a three-note motif - another epigram - with an excellent chorale section followed by a quicker, march section.

Persichetti liked to borrow motifs from one work to use in another. His textbook Twentieth Century Harmony from 1961 provides the theme used in Masquerade’s ten clever and winning variations. This piece has a larger range of instrumental color and emotional intensity than most of the works on this disc. It is also one of the more advanced items in terms of idiom, providing quite a contrast to the Psalm and Pageant. Masquerade deserves to be as well known as those works. Another “borrowed” piece is the Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen, based on a hymn that the composer wrote for his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year. The hymn is not so interesting in itself, but Persichetti weaves around it to create an exemplar of the chorale prelude form, one that demonstrates his contrapuntal abilities to the full. The “Poem for Band” O  Cool is the Valley betrays a rather 1930s American-Midwest approach to Joyce, but also features some of the best woodwind playing on this disc, especially from the flutes and oboes. The last two minutes are thrilling.

The Parable is the ninth is Persichetti’s series of 25 and with the possible exception of the Symphony for Band, the magnum opus of Persichetti’s symphonic band music. It is a single-movement work, almost twenty minutes long and is in an idiom that is more dissonant, with hard-edged chords, than one would expect from the other pieces here. Persichetti takes a single idea and develops it in a linear fashion, but according to no specific form. This time the clarinets and English horn are prominent and again the London Symphony Winds are equal to the challenges. The saxophones also get a workout and the percussionist in charge of the tubular bells seems to appear in almost every section of the piece. I found that the basic material did not lend itself to a work of this length, but there are still many exciting moments.

The playing on this CD is excellent. I have mentioned various individual groups within the orchestra, but the ensemble playing is equally good. Conductor David Amos is to be praised for the concept of a whole disc of Persichetti’s band music. It is shame he did not make another disc to record the seven remaining pieces in the Persichetti repertoire. His leadership here is usually complete and very effective, although occasionally he seemed to lose control.  This is only one of many records of unusual repertoire that he has produced through the years and one hopes that more are on the way.

Almost the same program was recorded by the Ohio State University Band under the leadership of the estimable Donald McGinnis, but this record has been out of print for a while. There is also a disc by Eugene Migliaro Corporon on the Gia label that covers four of the pieces on the Naxos disc. The Gia is quite good, but for an all-round anthology of Persichetti band works, this re-release by Naxos is to be preferred.

William Kreindler

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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