, January 2007
The United States Marine Band was founded by an act of Congress in 1798, making it the oldest professional musical organisation in America. It is also one of the most respected Bands in the World, so expectations have to be high. The standard is indeed remarkable, with, as you might anticipate, faultless intonation, rhythmic control and instrumental balance. The recording location is not given on the CD notes, and the website gives nothing away either, the word ‘Studio’ having to suffice – no doubt a wise security precaution, and as such a sad sign for our times. There is a touch of resonance in the acoustic to take away what might otherwise be an overly dry recording, but certainly nothing which in any way interferes with the detail in the playing or scoring.
The grand title for this CD covers most of the work in the programme, with only the arranged and transcribed creating any cause for controversy. All of these arrangements were made many years ago however, and have therefore been a staple of the Band repertoire for as long as anyone can remember. The arrangement by Giuseppe Creatore of Verdi’s Triumphal March was made some time in the 1900s, and has a well-rounded feel, instruments all playing well within their range, and the voicings nicely spread.
After this agreeable overture, we have the original 1920 version of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds, in an edition prepared by Robert Craft. Stravinsky revised the work in 1945-47, but to my ear the work remains essentially the same, with the reduced scoring of 23 instruments just giving the work more of a chamber-music feel. This performance is of course excellent, but I don’t quite ‘get’ the interpretation. Stravinsky’s neo-classical style demands a certain coolness, but Michael Colburn’s reading is almost matter-of-fact. Most of the other versions I know come in at around nine minutes, but this one leaves very little room between sections, shaving off half a minute from the average and not giving much space for the music to breathe. Listening to Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Decca shows how there can be more room for some expressive quasi-rubato in the more lyrical passages. Picking another 1920 version almost at random, Thierry Fischer and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble on Chandos wring much more contrast out of the reedy articulation-rhythm of the winds and the round kick of the brass. I’m not so keen on the American style of vibrato in the flutes either, but that is of course a question of taste. The funereal end is as always a moving moment, but could have had a heavier tread from the Marines – despite marvellous playing this version doesn’t come close to knocking any others off my shelf.
Vincent Persichetti is a new name to me, but his Symphony for Band has become one of the most frequently performed original works for band ever written. On just one hearing of the work you can easily understand its popularity among performers and audiences alike. It has everything, excitement in the opening Allegro, a moving chorale for the second Adagio sostenuto, a lilting and dance-like Allegretto, and a return to the ‘grit’ of the opening with a fun-filled Vivace finale. All of the instruments are given effective parts, and while there is an extrovert character in the outer movements the Americanism has a light touch and a refreshing lack of bombast. I have a feeling that this recording will be the reference to which many bands will be referring in the future.
Jaromír Weinberger’s famous Polka and Fugue from ‘Schwanda the Bagpiper’ was arranged for band by Glenn Cliffe Bainum in 1934, who was Director of Bands at Northwestern University. This provides some light relief between two heavyweight works for band in this programme, but the fugue provides the Marine woodwinds a chance to shine as well.
Emblems is Aaron Copland’s only work for band, and is certainly the most ‘modern’ sounding on this disc. Filled with grand gesture and some typical Copland resolutions, the opening does have a broadness and eloquence which plumbs greater depths than most Band music one could name. The second section is genuinely funky, starting with a kind of compositional finger-painting, lines and thematic fragments being thrown around like confetti in a high and turbulent wind. Toward the end the grand gesture returns, pungently resonant harmonies underpinning relatively simple melodic shapes – back at the ‘Copland Chorale’, and with a return of ‘Auld lang syne’ as well.
With these rarefied sonic heights still echoing in the memory, Percy Grainger kicks in with characteristic gusto with his Children’s March. This piece was written while Grainger was serving in the U.S. army as a member of the Coast Artillery Band, and resembles some of his folk-song settings, while remaining an original band piece. Striking elements include a prominent part for piano, and choral singing from the musicians – a master stroke among many fine details which turns a fun march into something rather haunting and special. My compliments to the low reeds as well – everyone seems on cracking form here.
Walton’s well-known Crown Imperial written for the coronation of King George VI appears here in a transcription made by W.J. Duthoit in 1937. The piece works very well as a flourish for band, with some virtuoso writing for the low brass. None of the Englishness in this work is lost in this setting, so there need be no fear of twitching moustaches in clubland.
This is a marvellous display of crack Wind Band performing, a superb recording and a stimulating programme. If you feel your red blood corpuscles need restoring then this might very well be the musical pep pill they require. With my reservations about the Stravinsky only mildly nagging in the back of my mind, I can wholeheartedly recommend this as a standard bearer for this form.