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American Brass!
See end of review for track-listing
London Symphony Brass/Eric Crees
rec. January 1991, Barbican Hall, London, UK
Originally released on Collins Classics 12882
ALTO ALC 1209 [63:37]

It’s good to see these old Collins recordings making a comeback. Their invaluable Dame Gillian Weir set of Messiaen organ works and those discs of Peter Maxwell Davies conducting his own works – now available on Priory and Naxos respectively – are prime examples of what this label achieved in its short but very productive life. The London Symphony Brass made a number of recordings for Collins, of which this tasty selection of 20th-century American classics is likely to have the widest appeal.
Seasoned CD collectors may baulk when they hear that these performances were recorded in the rather dry and unforgiving acoustic of London’s Barbican Hall. However, the disc seems largely unaffected by this perennially problematic venue. True, the sound isn’t quite up to the best modern standards, but then the top-notch playing more than compensates for any sonic shortcomings. Indeed, the Fanfare for the Common Man is as thrilling as ever, the heraldic brass nicely distanced from the thudding bass drum and shimmering tam-tam centre-stage.
Most impressive, though, is the ensemble’s rock-solid intonation and impeccable blend. They are from the LSO after all. We can add to this the hyper-alert and idiomatic direction of Eric Crees. The LSO’s co-principal trombone for twenty years – and now principal trombone at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – Crees leads a high-octane performance of Bernstein’s West Side Story suite. There’s a delicious sense of anticipation in the nervy rhythms of Something’s Coming and an intoxicating jungle beat in the Mambo. If anything, the Barbican’s clean acoustic brings out the percussive edges, but the recording never succumbs to fatigue-inducing brightness.
After a nimble Scherzo comes the riotous and – in Lenny’s DG recording, very funny – América. The rhythmic flexibility of this most versatile band is a joy to hear, and it doesn’t take much to imagine that girlish argument and Anita’s cautionary tale of the ‘boo-leets flying’. After that comes the finger-clickin’ Cool, which is as svelte and slinky as one could wish. There’s some terrific work on the drums, too. The suite ends with a haunting, finely calibrated rendition of the signature piece, Somewhere. It all sounds so wonderfully symphonic as well, the climaxes bold yet tastefully done.
The one very minor disappointment on this disc is El Salón México which, for all its felicities, can’t quite match the ease and sleaze of Bernstein’s orchestral account on CBS/Sony. It’s all too easy to imprint on a recording, but I’ve never heard anyone do this piece better than Bernstein himself; even Copland’s LSO version – also on CBS/ Sony – doesn’t come close.
No such qualms about Cowell’s stirring Fanfare for the Latin American Allies, which has all the ceremonial nobility and splendour the piece demands.
This CD is sensibly programmed, with inwardness likely to follow ebullience. Just sample the gravely beautiful Barber Mutations, which has a hushed, superbly etched quality. If proof were needed of the ensemble’s professionalism and skill this is it. What extraordinary playing, and how well recorded to boot. As for the irreverent Ives, these variations can hardly fail to raise one’s spirits. From the first ‘straight’ version of ‘that tune’ to its plashy, discordant reprise and the jaunty finale these fine players remind one of just how devilishly clever this piece is.
The disc draws to a close with another Copland fanfare, this one written in 1969 to commemorate the centennial of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A gnarly affair, it’s no less effective – or affecting – for that. The concert ends on a high note, with a jazzy, smoke-hazed version of Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. The band play as if to the manner born. They seem to strike sparks off each other at times. One senses that the players are letting their hair down at last. It makes a fitting sign-off to a most enjoyable CD.
A welcome return for this Collins collection; brass fans need not dally.
Dan Morgan

Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) [3:07]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Suite from ‘West Side Story’ (1957) (arr. Eric Crees)
Prologue [4:17]
Something’s coming [2:55]
Mambo [2:24]
Maria – Cha cha [1:18]
Scherzo [1:53]
América [2:40]
Cool – Fugue [3:55]
Somewhere [4:23]
El Salón México (1936) (arr. Eric Crees) [11:07]
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Fanfare for the Latin American Allies (1942) (arr. Eric Crees) [1:49]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Mutations from Bach’s ‘Christe du Lamm Gottes’ (1968) [4:50]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Variations on ‘America’ (?1891) (arr. Eric Crees) [7:17]
Ceremonial Fanfare (1969) [3:52]
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949/1955) (arr. Eric Crees) [7:44]