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Wine Dark Sea
Dan WELCHER (b. 1948)
Spumante (1998; arr. for wind ensemble by Paul Bissell, 2000) [6:43]
Donald GRANTHAM (b. 1947)
J'ai été au bal (1999) [9:43]
Frank TICHELI (b. 1958)
Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble (2010)
I. Rhapsody for George [7:12]
II. Song for Aaron [8:01]
III. Riffs for Lenny [6:55]
John MACKEY (b. 1973)
Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band) (2014)*
I. Hubris [10:50]
II. Immortal Thread, So Weak [11:45]
III. The Attentions of Souls [8:32]
Nathan Williams (clarinet)
The University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin
rec. 13-14 September 2014, Bates Recital Hall, The University of Texas at Austin
*World première recording

‘I doff my hat to these terrifically talented Texans’; that was my enthusiastic sign-off to this ensemble’s previous album, Shadow of Sirius, the latest of Naxos's Wind Band Classics. That series is particularly valuable, as it showcases the talents of American college groups. UTWE is high among them, so I was delighted to hear they would feature in this new disc from audiophile label Reference Recordings. In the past RR releases have certainly lived up to their name; indeed, Organ Polychrome impressed me so much that I made it one of my top picks for 2015.

The label’s in-house recordings – denoted by the album prefix RR – are masterminded by Keith O. Johnson. Something of a legend he uses both hand-made and carefully modified equipment to produce some of the most life-like recordings available today. The releases with the prefix FR are recorded by other production teams and licensed to Reference. Manfred Honeck’s Pittsburgh Beethoven 5 and 7 and Bruckner Fourth fall into that category. However, as good as those SoundMirror productions are they can’t beat a ‘Johnson Special’.

Now, back to the music. John Mackey, composer of the title piece Wine Dark Sea, came to my attention with his short but brilliantly plumed Kingfishers Catch Fire; that was one of the stand-out items on the Sirius album I mentioned earlier. As for Frank Ticheli he swum into my ken with An American Elegy, a deeply affecting response to the Columbine shootings in 1999. Landscapes, the collection from which it comes, is yet another of those Naxos Wind Band releases. I’ve also enjoyed The Shore, which finds the composer in confident choral mode.

Dan Welcher, whose Spumante opens with the popping of a cork, is new to me. This engaging piece, commissioned by the Boston Pops, is rather more subtle than its effervescent title might suggest. The arrangement is assured, the playing is crisp and the recording is immaculate. There are moments here that remind me of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide; then again, Lenny looms so large in the history of 20th-century American music that he’s impossible to ignore. That said, Welcher casts the net wide, citing William Schuman, Samuel Barber and Walter Piston as his primary musical influences.

I’ve not encountered the music of Donald Grantham before, but his Louisiana-inspired J'ai été au bal (I went to the dance), with its artful use of Cajun tunes, is an ear-pricking, toe-tapping delight. The music’s panoply of colours and rhythms is superbly caught; even more astounding is the virtuosity of this band, whose stylish playing would put many a professional to shame. Would that we had such fine ensembles here in the UK; alas, the parlous state of music education in our schools seems to have extended to many of our universities as well. That's not to say there aren't any talented groups performing at this level, just that we don't have nearly enough of them.

Next up is Ticheli's clarinet concerto, with Eastman/Juilliard graduate and chamber-musician Nathan Williams as the soloist. The composer talks of his ‘playful allusions’ to the music of Gershwin, Copland and – of course – Bernstein, all of which are skilfully done. Williams is a lively and communicative player with a fine technique. He certainly impresses in the limpid loveliness of Song for Aaron, so redolent of Copland's signature pieces. As for the Bernstein riffs – with a nod towards West Side Story – they find composer, soloist and band at their deft and rhythmic best. There are some highly individual slips and slides here – all so confidently voiced – and the vigorous sign-off left me wanting more.

In his candid booklet notes John Mackey admits that he writes the music and his wife Abby comes up with the titles; that's a novel approach, but the wonderfully evocative results speak for themselves. Wine Dark Sea – a Jerry Junkin/UTWE commission – was to last 30 minutes, hence the decision to go for something both epic and programmatic; well, Homer’s Odyssey qualifies on both counts. The first movement, with its opening fanfares and thrilling echoes, certainly has the necessary boldness and sweep. The music’s compelling character – savour that snapping side-drum and Stygian bass one – is superbly realised in this very sophisticated recording. It’s a beguiling, velvet sound, just like the best of analogue but with an extraordinarily wide dynamic range.

Mackey’s score is most inventive, with much for the band to explore and execute, and I was struck by just how magnetic the outer movements are. Not only that, the music has muscle and sinew, its more rarefied moments complemented by passages of startling weight and trenchancy. By contrast the central movement, with its atmospheric harp part, is beautifully spun. The restless finale has undeniable tension, and the work builds to an emphatic close. Indeed, Wine Dark Sea is genuinely symphonic in its scope and impact; it's a fine piece, and it deserves to do well. As always the instrumental blend is faultless, there's passion aplenty, and the recording is first rate; really, what more could you possibly want?

Music of variety and substance, stylishly played; another Rolls-Royce recording from Reference.

Dan Morgan



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