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British Classics for Wind Orchestra William BYRD (1539-1623)
The Earl of Oxford's Marche (1588, arr. Elgar Howarth) [3:37] George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759) Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749, arr. Thomas Scheibe) [19:04] Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Suite from The Fairy Queen (1692/1695, arr. Thomas Scheibe) [14:38] Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) First Suite for Military Band Op.28 No.1 (1909) [10:44] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Concerto for Bass Tuba & Orchestra (1953/54, arr. Dens Wick) [13:27] Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Nimrod (Var.9 from "Enigma" Variations) (1899, arr. Alfred Reed) [3:25]
Pomp & Circumstance March Op.39 No.1 (1901, arr. Gerhard Baumann) [6:10]
Andreas Martin Hofmeir (bass tuba)
Sächsische Bläserphilharmonie / Thomas Clamor
rec. 2018, German Wind Academy, Bad Lausick, Germany GENUIN GEN20658 [71:14]
This new disc has many virtues. High up that list is the quite superb playing of the Saxon Wind Philharmonic. The ensemble was founded some seventy years ago as the Leipzig Radio Wind Orchestra, and according to the notes it is today Germany’s only professional ‘classical’ wind orchestra. They are directed here by Thomas Clamor, their principal conductor since 2011. He was the then-youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic when he was appointed trumpet by Karajan in 1986, and he remained a member of the orchestra for over twenty years. As a conductor, he seems to have specialised in wind and brass ensembles. Certainly his direction of this group shows he has an excellent sense of instrumental balance and ensemble, and a good feel for the spirit of this music.
The programme is an interesting survey of British music for wind and brass ensemble which splits nearly/neatly into half baroque or earlier and half 20th century (well, nearly, if you allow the 1899 Enigma Variations to count). From whichever period the music is drawn, Clamor has a good sense of appropriate style. If the music appeals – and accepting these are mainly arrangements of non-wind orchestra scores – this is a delightful programme. Rather disappointingly, the liner notes do not list the instrumental line-up of the Saxon Wind Philharmonic, or how the chosen pieces differ in terms of the instrumentation. So the opening Earl of Oxford's Marche appears to be the version Elgar Howarth transcribed for the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble; thus no woodwind. Certainly it gives the disc a suitably heraldic and ceremonial start with the literal brilliance of the Saxon brass, as well as their superb blend and virtuosity of immediate note. I love the flamboyance of the tuba writing Howarth deploys around 1:40. Given the wind band line-up, it might have been that Gordon Jacob's William Byrd Suite would have been more appropriate, although it has to be said that Howarth’s arrangement is more overtly thrilling.
Thomas Scheibe arranged the two suites by Handel and Purcell. He appears to be a trumpeter/flugel player who is also a member of this ensemble. Again these are fine arrangements, expertly played. Given that the original work was in effect for a baroque version of a wind and brass ensemble, albeit without some instruments available today, this does not sound vastly different from the original work. The clarity of the running part writing in the opening Ouverture is a delight to hear: it is played with precision and ease. Thomas Clamor chooses effective alert tempi. I would prefer the rhythms a little more double-dotted but after all this is a transcription not a historical recreation, so such things are purely a question of choice. All I would say is that, for the listener, this arrangement does not add to or change one's perception of the original work. So, apart from making this music available to performers or ensembles who might not otherwise play it, I am not sure it adds much to the sum of all knowledge. Indeed, if one wants to hear the work in its original massed wind format, it is hard to beat the old and famous Charles Mackerras version with the scratch Pro Arte. That version lacks the sheer precision on display here, but it has a pomp and grandeur quite alien to this new recording.
Likewise, the quarter-hour suite of selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is enjoyable without being revelatory. Thomas Scheibe’s arrangement is very effective in its change of instrumental ‘registration’; brass and wind sections alternate through the various repeated sections, and some of the trumpet ornamentation is exhilaratingly virtuosic.
The 20th century half of the programme opens with Holst’s First Suite for Military Band. This very familiar work is one of the first significant pieces written by an important British composer especially for wind/military band. This recording uses the 1984 revision edited (not “arranged” as the notes would have you believe) by Colin Matthews with the assistance of Imogen Holst and Frederick Fennell. The changes Matthews made are more to do with technical practicalities and the availability of instruments across countries than with any substantive alterations to the actual music. That being the case, for the average listener the interest lies with the music itself and the quality of the performance. Again this new version is beautifully played but, if I was being very picky, it lacks the weight and presence of classic versions. Imogen Holst conducted a survey of her father’s band music back in 1966, which one assumes had to use the Boosey & Hawkes 1948 edition produced when the original full score was considered lost. So editorially that older version (still available as part of the EMI/Warner 6-CD "Holst - The Collector's Edition") is flawed but there is an authentic tang to the playing which the slightly contained new version cannot match. Frederic Fennell’s recording with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds on Telarc is also significantly more “rollicking”, although in each instance the actual tempi are very similar.
The clear highlight of this disc is the quite excellent performance (and arrangement) of the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Bass Tuba. The playing here is quite superb from all departments but especially soloist Andreas Martin Hofmeir. Also, Denis Wick’s wonderfully idiomatic transcription throws new light on this late gem by Vaughan Williams. The wind/brass-only instrumentation creates parallels that had previously escaped me. The composer’s Symphony No.8, composed at exactly the same time, of course features a movement scored for orchestral wind and brass only. It is interesting to compare Hofmeir to either John Fletcher with Previn/LSO on RCA or Patrick Harrild with Thomson also with the LSO on Chandos. The latter two favour a euphonium-like warmth, whereas the edgier Hofmeir, aided by the sprightly playing of Saxon Wind Philharmonic, transform the work. This is the only version of this wind band arrangement which I have heard but it proves to be a delight in every regard from start to finish. For me it alone is worth the price of the disc.
The programme is completed by Elgar’s two standard pieces: Nimrod and the first Pomp and Circumstance March. The former is another success. It is very well paced and beautifully played; Clamor's control of this deceptively tricky piece is quite beautiful. There are numerous associations of hearing this work played by military bands at Remembrance Day parades that certainly add to the emotional impact when played by such an ensemble but in its own right this is excellent. The concluding march is rather more routine. It is very well played, of course, but somehow missing the stiffening of sinew and swagger that the piece can instil for all its over-played familiarity.
So all in all a good programme, very well played indeed, and an excellent concerto is the stand-out work. I would have happily traded the Purcell for the Holst 2nd Military Suite or perhaps something more contemporary and challenging. Likewise, the concluding Elgar march feels like a slightly unremarkable filler. Tilmann Böttcher’s liner notes suffer the fate of many undiomatically translated scripts and careless proofing. His essay is titled "With Umbrellas, Charm and Trumpets", I have no idea why. As mentioned, Colin Matthews is wrongly credited as arranger; Morton Gould, slightly bizarrely, is not only credited as an English conductor and composer but named as having arranged the Byrd march in 1923 [when Gould would have been 10 years old]. Apparently Handel “visibly enjoyed his relationship with the audience…” The timings on the back of the CD swap the Holst and Vaughan Williams around. That aside, the presentation of the disc, its engineering and above all its music-making are very good. As ever, it is a pleasure to hear British music played with such skill and commitment by non-British performers.
Fine playing of diverse but familiar repertoire with the Vaughan Williams the stand-out success.