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Above and Beyond
Paul CRESTON (1906-1985)
Celebration Overture, op.61 [7:54]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Emblems [10:33]
Gerard SCHWARZ (b.1947)
Above and Beyond [8:54]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Lincolnshire Posy [14:52]
Bernard RANDS (b.1934)
Ceremonial [12:54]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Medea’s Dance of Vengeance op.23a (transcr. Frank M. Hudson) [11:54]
Commando March [3:39]
Jacques OFFENBACH {1819-1955)
Marines’ Hymn (arr. Hunsberger) [1:11]
‘The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band/Gerard Schwarz
rec. in concert, 12 March 2012, Music Center, Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland, USA
NAXOS WIND BAND CLASSICS 8.573121 [71:53]

As I listened to this CD by ‘The President’s Own’ band, I couldn’t help wondering what the current president himself would make of it. A previous incumbent, Bill Clinton, was an accomplished saxophone player, with relatively sophisticated tastes. Obama’s i-pod list, published a while ago, contained nothing more challenging than Jay-Z and Bob Dylan – maybe he’s broadened or deepened since then. Although politicians today — and not only in the US — are notoriously paranoid about any suggestion they might be remotely interested in music that could be seen as ‘challenging’ or ‘esoteric’.
 
Whatever the truth about that, Obama should have a listen to his ‘own’ United States Marine Band. They are a superb outfit, and can be heard on this disc playing a wide range of wind band repertoire, some original, some arranged for the medium. The subtlety and variety of both the music and the playing might come as a surprise to those whose experience of wind bands doesn’t stretch far beyond military marches and the like.
 
Some of the pieces here are relatively conventional, as for example Paul Creston’s Celebration Overture, which is content to repeat the formula of so many short American band pieces – brash fanfare-like opening, fast energetic section, slower lyrical contrasting theme. It’s revealing to compare this with Gerard Schwarz’s Above and Beyond, chosen as the ‘title piece’ of the disc. This is placed immediately after Copland’s Emblems, and I was at first uncomfortably aware how very Coplandesque Schwarz’s opening is. That said, it develops into a really fine and rather thrilling work, skilfully scored for the forces available. This is not surprising in that Schwarz is an experienced and distinguished conductor of this type of repertoire. There is a surprisingly thoughtful ending, the woodwind winding the music down over rumbling percussion, with occasional snarls from muted brass. This is a work I’d commend strongly to music directors of wind bands, with the proviso that it’s not only technically pretty demanding, but also requires a very fully ‘staffed’ band. A real find.
 
Copland’s Emblems is a late work from 1965, redolent with the composer’s wide ranging melodies and gritty harmonies. It contains a brief reference to Amazing Grace, but is none the worse for that. Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is a true classic of the wind band repertoire, and is characterised sharply here, with the band’s excellence of balance and blend giving extra piquancy to Grainger’s chords and textures.
 
Perhaps the most striking piece of the collection is Bernard Rands’ Ceremonial. Though born in Britain and trained there, Rands has lived in America for many years, and is firmly established as an important voice among the composers of his generation. This is a most original construction; a sinuous melody is first presented in a plaintive bassoon, high in its register, against nothing more than side-drum taps. This idea is then repeated with varied scoring, occasionally interrupted by dense, rather sinister chordal passages. Rands maintains and builds the tension throughout, and makes quite an impact in a fine performance like this.
 
Samuel Barber completes the disc — apart from the short Marines’ Hymn to round things off in suitable fashion. His Commando March is a well-known staple of the American band repertoire. However, the Dance of Vengeance from his ballet Medea, as transcribed by Frank Hudson, is substantial and impressive. As a concert item, this was originally called Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, but Barber later re-named it as given here. The lyrical opening, scored mainly for woodwind, is restrained, gradually leading to the twitchy, obsessive rhythms of the final dance.
 
This is a distinguished disc; the recording might be a little dry for some tastes but I liked it enormously, chiefly because it enables the detailed textures, so brilliantly achieved by the musicians themselves, to register with total clarity.
 
Gwyn Parry-Jones