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Heavy Weather
Susan BOTTI (b. 1962)
Sull’ala: Concerto for Saxophone and Wind Ensemble (2014) [26:29]
Jess Langston TURNER (b. 1983)
Heavy Weather: Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble (2013) [22:34]
Stephen Michael GRYC (b. 1949)
Guignol: Concerto for Bassoon and Small Orchestra of Winds and Percussion (2017) [13:07]
Carrie Koffman (saxophone), Scott Mendoker (tuba), Marc Goldberg (bassoon)
Hartt Wind Ensemble/Glen Adsit
rec. 2013-18, Lincoln Centre, University of Hartford, USA

Naxos’s Wind Band Classics is now a surprisingly extensive part of its catalogue, and you can see that a great deal of the music in it is American in origin.  That is not surprising given the immense popularity, over many years, of wind bands in American high schools, universities and colleges. Many of them reach astonishingly high standards of performance, as is the case with the band featured here, the Hartt Wind Ensemble of the University of West Hartford, Connecticut.  They play under the direction of Glen Adsit, and on this disc cope admirably with the often very demanding accompaniments of these three concertos.

I would recommend anyone listening to this CD to ‘hang in there’; my experience was that it became more and more attractive and (horrid word) accessible as it progressed.  Susan Botti’s opener – she is a remarkable talent, well-known as a singer as well as for her compositions – is a fairly austere piece. The title sull’alla means ‘On the wing’, so that the imagination is directed towards various aspects of flight.  This is made most explicit in the two short movements titled ‘Murmuration’ that form interludes between the first, third and fifth movements. Murmuration signifies the huge colonies of starlings that congregate in the skies, forming extraordinary shifting patterns.  These movements in Botti’s piece act as moments of comparative stillness in contrast with the often spasmodic and explosive character of the larger movements.  Carrie Koffman is the brilliant (and dauntless) sax soloist.

I found Jess Turner’s Heavy Weather more approachable, even if you might require a degree in climatology to comprehend his programme notes (well why not?  After all, you need a degree in music to understand some booklet notes, which is silly). It’s in two movements; the first is titled Heat Wave and describes powerfully the horribly uncomfortable weather that comes when hot air near the ground is unable to escape upwards as it normally can – because of excessively high atmospheric pressure.  The unique ‘bottled up’ sound of the tuba solo, climbing up through the wind textures, is a perfect metaphor for this oppressive state. The second section, Supercell, describes the conditions that culminate in one of the most frightening meteorological phenomena, the tornado.  The gradual build-up throughout, leading to a thrilling release of the percussion section, is brilliantly achieved by Turner and his performers, and the piece ends in an uneasy calm. 
Turner handles the textures of the wind and percussion with great skill (being a trumpet player himself probably helps), and he also draws some welcome delicacy from his ensemble; there is for example a small but very telling harp part, providing some haunting moments.  Quite a piece.

In total contrast, Stephen Gryc’s bassoon concerto Guignol is full of wry humour, as befits both the title subject and the solo instrument, for which it is beautifully written. (Guignol, as Gryc’s note explains, is a puppet figure – not a million miles from Mr. Punch in character – from the Lyon area of France, which was the inspiration behind the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris at the end of the 19th century).  As the piece kicked off, I was immediately reminded of The Soldier’s Tale, and Stravinsky lurks in the background – and sometimes the foreground – throughout this delightful short concerto. Stravinsky wrote so superbly for the bassoon, and indeed for all wind instruments, and Gryc seems to build successfully on that.  He also scores with immense care and skill so that the solo instrument, notoriously difficult to avoid drowning, is always sufficiently audible. Credit for that also goes to engineers, who have made sure the bassoon is well forward – though not excessively so – and also, of course, to the marvellous playing of the soloist Marc Goldberg, well-known for his appearances in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles.

I suppose this disc could be described as a ‘niche’ product – ok, but a beautiful and polished one it most certainly is. 

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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