Philip SPARKE (b. 1951)
Overture for Woodwinds (1999) [6:10]
Gary CARPENTER (b. 1951)
Pantomime (1995) [17:19]
Christopher HUSSEY (b. 1974 )
Dreamtide (2012) [15:18]
Adam GORB (b. 1958)
Battle Symphony (1997) [10:27]
Twisted Skyscape (2008) [14:12]
Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble/Shea Lolin
rec. 2014, Smecky Music Studios, Prague.
LEGNI CLASSICS no number [63:24]
“The purpose of this recording is twofold – to promote British composers and their works, and to promote the woodwind orchestra.” So begins the booklet note for this uniquely programmed recording, replete with world premières and strikingly well produced and performed.
The Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble is a euphonious orchestra which rightly pays as much attention to its low registers as to the usual flutes, clarinets and oboes. Bass and contrabass clarinets as well as contrabassoon and baritone saxophone ensure rich bass lines and a strong foundation of sonority on which the sound of the rest of the orchestra can be built. I speak with some experience on this subject, having been something of a subcontrabass flute specialist in a number of ensembles – it’s the low register which defines sound and harmonic cohesion, as much as it is the middle which glues everything together with those buzzing around on top playing all the good tunes.
Philip Sparke receives a mention in Philip Scowcroft’s Garland on British Light Music, and his Overture for Woodwinds is a perfect opener for this CD, delivering the full spectrum of sound from the orchestra in music which begins with expansive gravitas and moves towards colourfully playful and some nice syncopated rhythms.
Gary Carpenter has become something of an establishment figure, with professorships at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, his profile enhanced by an NMC release of his works for ensemble under the title Die Flimmerkiste. His Pantomime derives from a musical version of Aladdin, forming a five-movement suite which invokes “the shadowy world and half-forgotten world of smoky Music Halls, Vaudeville, Burlesque, and their later, often televisual incarnations.” This is a score filled with fun and often witty elegance, including a Dream Calypso which reminds one of Malcolm Arnold and includes some juicy glissandi from the clarinets, and a Grand March (of the Chief Executive) which is announced by a quote from Mahler and is illustrative of an administration constantly messing things up “by arriving in inappropriate keys and providing equal opportunities for the wrong harmonies”.
Youngest of the composers appearing on this programme, Christopher Hussey studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and has a wide range of awards, performances and publications under his belt. His Dreamtide was originally written for choir, with ‘The Dream’ by Lord Byron as one of its texts. The outer movements have the most dreamlike material, with close-knit harmonies and relatively slow moving action, including the sounds of inhalation and in the third and closing movement some Aaron Copland-like harmonic gestures. The central movement, Wild Reality, has us riding – perhaps still dreaming and perhaps not – while riding on a bed of driving rhythms.
You might have heard of Adam Gorb through his prizewinning work Metropolis, or his contribution to a Chandos release, Homages for Wind. His Battle Symphony was written for a youth wind ensemble but pulls no technical punches, providing plenty of delicious moments for solo instruments to shine in a work which largely inhabits 17th and 18th century musical idioms. There are dissonances, but these are no more shocking than those in something like Milhaud’s Suite Provençale, and run in the same woody grain as the rest of this expertly scored and highly effective music.
Twisted Skyscape by Christopher Hussey was written for conductor Shea Lolin’s Bloomsbury Woodwind Ensemble, the first performance synchronised with Matthew Kemp’s film Flux as part of a collaborative commission scheme. The work opens with a brooding, atmospheric development towards a central movement with greater rhythmic impetus and some USA-tinted chords. The movements all have descriptive titles, and the music has that programmatic quality which at times almost leads you to expect a sepulchral voiceover, directing your attention to fascinating details or the bigger questions, enhancing your state of wonder. This isn’t quite the adventure I had hoped for from that promisingly dramatic title, but it’s all good stuff and superbly crafted.
Magnificently performed and recorded with the kind of detail and range which gives the sound a ‘demonstration’ quality, this is one of those ‘stick of rock’ CDs which is equally good all the way through, and rewards repeated consumption – and no, I don’t mean ‘with tooth decay and diabetes’, before anyone fancies being a great wit. Yes, the music is of a certain type, but that certain type is the high-quality and very approachable type which both stimulates and entertains. This is all part of the concept as outlined at the outset, and as a package it works very well indeed. I’m not a great fan of the ‘choir’ appellation for homogenous ensemble types, the ambition of a genuine ‘orchestra’ as is heard here creates worlds of subtlety and detailed layers of timbre the equal of many a conventional philharmonic.