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Homages for Wind
Adam GORB (b. 1958)
Awayday (1996) [6:38]
Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968)
Diaghilev Dances
(2002) [
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Water Music
, Op. 82 (1964) [
(b. 1939)
Canyons (1990-91) [
Buxton ORR (1924-1997)
A John Gay Suite (1972-73) [14:34]
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell
rec. 18-19 March 2006, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
CHANDOS CHAN 10409 [58:34]


The back of the CD booklet has a photograph of the RNCM’s Head of Conducting, Clark Rundell, smiling broadly at the camera. As well he might, for this is a superbly played disc of very memorable music. 

To their eternal credit Chandos have always championed brass bands but goodness knows we have come a long way since the days of the military, municipal and marching bands. And noble though that tradition undoubtedly is, here we have sophisticated music-making, helped in no small measure by music of quality and the hard work of institutions such as the RNCM. 

The disc kicks off with the deliciously cheeky staccato opening to Awayday by Welshman Adam Gorb. Remember those old British Rail posters urging commuters to head for the countryside of a weekend? Well there is something rather more metropolitan than bucolic in this music, with its blend of jazzy, Broadway-style melodies. There’s more than a hint of finger-clickin’ Bernstein, too, and some great percussion work to boot. 

After this upbeat beginning Liverpudlian Kenneth Hesketh's Diaghilev Dances are altogether more restrained. A commission from a consortium of music colleges, this seven-movement piece - played without a break - evokes the heady days of Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, all of whom provided ground-breaking ballets for Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes in the first decades of the 20th century.

Hesketh supplements the wind band with flutes and harps and the mysterious opening of the Introduction recalls Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, with the following pieces hinting at some of the rhythmic complexity of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Underpinned by brass playing of impeccable intonation the music, in part marked Soave, does indeed have a cool sophistication and wit, ending with an energetic dance section and an expansive final dance/scherzo.

Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Water Music, commissioned by The National Trust for the re-opening of the Stratford Canal in 1964, owes an obvious debt to Handel’s piece of the same name. It contains baroque dance forms expertly woven into the music as only Arnold can do. Of course he was no stranger to the dance, composing two sets of English Dances (Opp. 27 and 33) and one set each of Scottish Dances (Op. 59), Cornish Dances (Op. 91), Irish Dances (Op.126) and Welsh Dances (Op. 138).

The opening Allegro is measured but agile (the writing is wonderfully transparent here). The Andantino has at its heart a slowly bobbing motif, a siciliana, appropriate for a piece designed to be played on a barge. The final Allegro lets rip with percussion and drums; this is Sir Malcolm in grand ceremonial garb, a bravura piece ending, appropriately enough, with a fanfare. 

John McCabe, who hails from Huyton, near Liverpool, has written symphonies, concertos, instrumental works and ballet scores, as well as pieces for brass band. He describes Canyons, composed for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble of the Guildhall School of Music, as a personal response 'to the imposing landscapes of the American South West'.

Don't expect mere scene painting in the manner of Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite or the metaphysical musings of Messiaen. There is nothing monolithic here either – although some percussion-led blocks of sound might well summon up cliffs and gorges in the mind’s eye. There are a variety of rhythms and textures at work here, with jazzy syncopations in the central movement. In the final Allegro vivace – Adagio the music is bolstered by elemental, pulsing drums and the work ends with the fading echo of a snare drum. Very atmospheric indeed.

The last work on the disc is by Glaswegian Buxton Orr, who studied and taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. As a composer he dabbled in serialism and also conducted the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra for 10 years. 

The first movement of his John Gay Suite – based on The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay – is delightfully jaunty with some beautifully blended brass playing. The second movement, a dusky Romanza, has more than a twist of Weill’s Dreigroschenoper, itself a musical reworking of Gay’s original play. The wistful central theme is underpinned by percussion playing of great delicacy, which is well caught by the Chandos team.

The ensuing Intermezzo is a good example of Orr's compositional skills, weaving together as it does the tune 'Over the hills and far away' with an English jig. The movement ends with some Stygian brass writing that is astonishingly secure and confident. 

The Finale opens with a jaunty French drinking song followed, inevitably, by a tipsy interlude before an exuberant coda brings the music romping home. A fitting end to a hugely enjoyable disc.

The broad, deep soundstage favoured by Chandos suits the music well. There is no hint of brashness and the finer details of flute and muted percussion are well caught. Another winner for veteran producer Ralph Couzens and his recording team of Don Hartridge, Tim Archer and Sharon Hughes. 

But it is the playing of the band under Rundell that is most deserving of praise. Aided by music of great skill and transparency, these players achieve a wonderfully homogeneous sound. Indeed, Britain has produced some very fine brass players in the past and the standard of music making here augurs well for the future. 

If you're looking for  ‘lollipops’ or the more traditional band sound this may not be for you. But if you are looking for modern British classics played by one of the best wind ensembles anywhere then you’ve come to the right place. 

Huzzas all round! 

Dan Morgan


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