Network - Music for Wind Band Kevin PUTS (b.1972)
Network (transcr. Ryan Kelly) (1997/2013) [6:59] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Sword in the Stone (Suite compiled by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews) (1939) [10:05] Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
‘Um Mitternacht’ from Rückert-Lieder (1901) [6:31] Steven BRYANT (b.1972)
Concerto for Wind Ensemble (2007-2010) [34:59]
Katherine Rohrer (soprano); The Ohio State University Wind Symphony/Russel C. Mikkelson (Britten, Mahler, Bryant) and Scott A. Jones (Puts)
Rec. at Weigel Auditorium, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA, March 20-21, 2015 NAXOS 8.573446 [58:36]
This is an intriguing and highly entertaining disc of music for wind instruments. If anyone reading this has had a bad experience with mediocre American wind band music (there’s a lot of it about!), please don’t be put off. Firstly, the playing is of a very high quality indeed, and secondly, this is anything but conventional repertoire. The programme is framed by two striking contemporary works for wind band, and in between, we have items by two great earlier composers, Britten and Mahler.
The ‘title’ work, Network by Kevin Puts is an energetic, restless and rather thrilling opener. It owes much to Steve Reich, with its moto perpetuo tuned percussion parts, as well as the pulsating background chords in the brass. The ‘network’ is a close and complex canon set up at the very beginning, and the drive thus established never flags.
The Britten Sword in the Stone suite is a real find; it was composed in 1939, and must therefore be one of the very last things he did before leaving for Canada and the US. Composed for a BBC Radio Children’s Hour adaptation of the T.H. White book, it consists of a number of very short items, full of wit and originality. We find Britten relaxed and enjoying himself, and producing music closest to his contemporaries Kurt Weill, or even Bohuslav Martinu in his Revue de Cuisine mood. There are entertaining little references to Wagner, with not only the Sword motif from the Ring making an appearance, but also the Woodbird’s song from Act 3 of Siegfried. It’s followed by a rather irreverent ‘cuckoo’ – telling us quite a lot about Britten’s opinion of Wagner! Britten had left the country by the time the music was performed; he apparently left instructions for the producer and conductor about this ‘deep and subtle music’ as he described it. Britten had a strong sense of humour – his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek, but this music is nevertheless enormous fun.
The Mahler song ‘Um Mitternacht’ at first felt out of place, despite being impressively performed by Katherine Rohrer. Yet it is of course scored for wind instruments, no strings; and in the end, I was convinced of its suitability in this context. Why? Because it is an example of Mahler’s ‘Night Music’; and as the next track began, the start of Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble immediately brought to mind, with its trilling intertwining clarinets, the second movement of Mahler’s 7th Symphony – entitled Nachtmusik 1. I have no idea if Bryant himself had any part in that reminiscence – or indeed whether I’m simply reading too much into it – but it does seem like an inspired bit of programming nonetheless.
Bryant’s work is an impressive and compelling piece in five movements, some of which are joined together. The opening clarinet phrases that I mentioned above give us a five-note rising phrase that is the kernel of the whole work, and which is partly responsible for the powerful sense of unity, despite the very disparate stylistic references, which range from Radiohead to Big Band to film scores by Corigliano. Movement I presents the main material, and, starting with clarinets, slowly builds up and thickens, perhaps a little reminiscently of The Rite of Spring. This is a concerto, so the point of focus shifts from one instrumental group to another, sometimes from one section to another. Movement II begins with a mournful duet from flutes, which are then joined by various other instruments, notably the harp, which is used to great effect throughout the work. Lonely music, yet with one moment of glowing revelation near the end, which I found breathtaking. Movement III is deliciously jazzy, with jerky Rhythms and fragmented phrases. The vibraphone is prominent, and there are wild quasi-improvisatory riffs that are played with brilliance by this talented band of students. One thinks, perhaps inevitably, of Bernstein here, but Bryant has his own highly personal voice – this is fabulous stuff. Movement IV could, I suppose, be seen as a protracted slow introduction to the final Movement V – except that it’s over twice as long, and emerges painfully from gloomy Stygian depths – in which contrabassoon, tuba, bass clarinet and other dark tones predominate.