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Worthweill Originals
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Variations on ‘Wilhelm von Oranien’ [5:03]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
March in C major, WeO20 [4:13]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Nocturno in C, op.24 [9:16]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Military March in E flat major, WAB116 [2:59]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony in B flat for Concert Band [16:24]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Theme and Variations for Wind Band, op.43a [12:10]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Little Threepenny Opera for Symphonic Winds [23:27]
Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy/Major Arjan Tien
rec. 2018, MCO, Studio 1, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Probably the worst thing about this CD is the title.  I read through the notes carefully, hoping to find some clarification, but found none, so I have to conclude that this is a weak piece of word-play on ‘worthwhile’, the composer’s name and – perish the thought – ‘Werther’s Original toffees (which are German, of course!)  OMG, as they say.

However, once you’ve got over the embarrassment of that, this is a really pleasing and interesting CD.  The Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy is a very fine outfit and have given us here an imaginative programme which presents major challenges for both the performers and some listeners, too.

It begins straightforwardly enough, though the little Strauss work based on the anthem ‘Wilhelm von Oranien’ (William of Orange to us Brits) is a rarity, and a rather pleasant one at that.  Strauss, whose father was a distinguished horn player, understood wind instruments extremely well; indeed, several of his teenage works are for wind ensembles, including the well-known Serenade in E flat.

The Beethoven March which follows is pure pot-boiler, the sort of thing Beethoven churned out at various times in his career. The jaunty main theme is undeniably catchy - though perhaps not entirely in a good way.

The artistic level is raised a little for the Mendelssohn Nocturno in C (better known as the ‘Overture in C’), which he wrote at the age of fifteen or thereabouts.  Its chief interest is in the inclusion of a part for the so-called ‘English bass horn’, which Mendelssohn heard on his travels and was so impressed by that he sent his drawing of it back home to sister Fanny.

For this recording, the part is played on an ophicleide, a predecessor of the tuba - a good choice, because Mendelssohn soon went on to use this instrument in, for example, his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.  The piece is itself is cheerful, if unremarkable, with an Allegro that could come straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Bruckner’s March in E flat, all three minutes of it, is followed by a pair of true wind-band masterpieces from the 20th century. Hindemith’s three-movement Symphony in B flat is, typically for him, superbly conceived and scored for the forces available.  It is a hugely challenging piece, requiring considerable virtuosity from the band, and a confident controlling hand from the conductor.  Both of those it receives in generous measure, and although the recorded sound is a little boxy, it is extremely well-balanced, and enables us to hear all the details of this complex, highly contrapuntal score.  Like Strauss, Hindemith had a special interest in and love for wind instruments, and he has written brilliantly for them in this piece of 1951. It was composed at the behest of the United States Army Band, a distinguished ensemble founded in 1922 by General John J. Pershing, and thereafter known as ‘Pershing’s Own’.  Sadly, the piece was not especially well received at the time; one American critic describing it as ‘singularly dead’! It’s a lot better than that, as this excellent performance makes plain, and the final fugue provides a thoroughly exciting conclusion.

The Theme and Variations by Arnold Schönberg, written in the USA in 1943, was a real surprise to me.  I knew of its existence, but had somehow managed never to hear it until now. It is a really fine piece, and certainly one of the most approachable works of his later years.  There is not much sign of twelve-note technique here; in fact, the musical language is not at all far from the Hindemith on the previous tracks. Schőnberg makes no attempt to avoid tonal centres, and creates some gorgeous textures, especially when he uses muted trumpets.  He also writes highly idiomatically for the saxophones – not an instrument you’d readily associate with this composer.

The CD ends with what is described as ‘Little Three-Penny-Opera for Symphonic Winds’, a clunky title which disguises the fact that this is the work properly known as ‘Kleine Dreigroschenmusik’, or ‘Little Threepenny Music’, based on numbers from Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’  It’s a nice, alert performance, though could do with just a little more ‘bite’ here and there to bring out the bitter edge in much of the music. That said, there is some beautifully subtle, controlled playing from the Dutch musicians, especially in ‘Polly’s Song’ and the ‘Tango-Ballade’.

Wind bands are not everybody’s cup of bromide tea but don’t be put off: this is a thoroughly entertaining and well produced disc, with some true rarities.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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