(1864 – 1949)
Complete works for wind ensemble
Sonatina No.1 in F, Aus der Werkstadtt einer Invaliden (1943) [30:58]
Suite in B, op.4 (1884) [22:11]
Serenade in E, op.7 (1881) [8:19]
Symphony in E, Fröhliches Werkstatt (1944/1945) [34:55]
Academy Symphonic Wind/Keith Bragg
rec. January 2003 (Symphony), June 2005 ( Sonatina), October 2006 (Suite and Serenade), Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London. DDD
ROYAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC RAM034 [53:21 + 43:21]

I am always amazed, when I hear these works, that they are so seldom played in concert. Since Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble’s pioneering complete recording of these pieces in 1970 and 1971, for Philips (6500 097), they have been known and heard. It’s not as if any of them require an abnormally large group, or include any exotic instruments – the Sonatina and Symphony contain parts for basset horn, but that’s as far as unusual demands go.

Like his Horn Concertos, these works very nicely book–end Strauss’s composing career, and they all have similarities. What is most noticeable is that the early Strauss’s classical writing is echoed in the later works, but with the added understanding of a lifetime of experience. This is why one can put an early and a late work on the same disk and there not be a huge surprise between pieces - the style is so obviously the same. That’s a simplistic way of saying that Strauss’s musical DNA was consistent and matured with the passing years.

The earliest work is the one movement Serenade, a delectable concoction, which one can almost imagine being played beneath the beloved’s window, even if it is slightly more fully scored than that kind of piece might be. The four movements of the Suite, op.4, a slightly later work than the Serenade, despite the earlier opus number, are a simple joy, with good tunes and nicely worked out part-writing which gives everyone something to do. With Strauss’s understanding of the orchestra there isn’t a dull moment. The Gavotte is particularly entertaining.

Sixty years later Strauss re-discovered the joys of the wind-band but, after writing his big orchestral works and getting to grips with the balance between wind and brass he here added a couple of extras in the Sonatina – the C clarinet and basset horns – in order to give better weight to the woodwind and create a more homogenous sound with better internal balance. The title – From an Invalid’s Workshop – refers to the fact that the composer was recovering from a bout of influenza early in 1943. But there’s nothing of the invalid about this music. Indeed, I find this work quite jolly, certainly, it’s not a serious work, and neither is there any suggestion of either old age or fatigue – Strauss was almost 80 at the time of composition.

The same is true of the Symphony – a bold and virile work in four big movements. This is the crowning glory of Strauss’s works for wind band and what a piece it is! There’s a very serious intent in the first movement, with severe and intricate working out of the material and some very Helden writing for the horns! The middle two movements provide light relief. The finale is a large-scale Introduction and Allegro, filled with the most brilliant writing for the woodwinds. The sound is rich and full.

These performances, made with three almost entirely different ensembles – as you’d expect from a student group, and with Verity Gunning, daughter of composer Christopher Gunning, playing in the Symphony – are of the highest standard. Keith Bragg’s direction is faultless. The recorded sound is very well balanced, and the wonderful acoustic of the Duke’s Hall has been used to best advantage in giving space to the performers and allowing the full textures to register clearly.

Sasha Calin’s notes are very good.

This is an exciting issue and should not be missed at any cost.

Bob Briggs

This is an exciting issue and should not be missed at any cost.