by Walter Simmons
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. STRAVINSKY Symphonies of Wind Instruments. COPLAND Emblems. GRAINGER Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away.WALTON Crown Imperial March et al. • Michael J. Colburn, cond; US Marine Band • NAXOS 8.570243 (64:16)
The title of this recent release seems to be intended in two ways—one, referring to works of primary importance in the wind ensemble repertoire: the Persichetti Symphony, Copland’s Emblems, and the Stravinsky Symphonies; the other, referring to works of monumental sonic impact: the transcription of the Triumphal March from Aida, Walton’s Crown Imperial March. The remaining works manage to squeeze themselves in without either claim. These are technically impeccable, highly disciplined performances, and—notwithstanding the album title and its implications—they are notable for their tasteful restraint, shunning the temptation to indulge in sheer bombast or other concessions to the vulgarian appetite whenever possible.
What I find particularly interesting about the program is the way that juxtaposing the works by Stravinsky, Copland, and Persichetti turns a spotlight onto Stravinsky’s neo-classical aesthetic, along with two significant tributaries that flow from it. The brief, curiously-titled Symphonies of Wind Instruments was written in 1920 in memory of Debussy, who had died two years earlier. Stravinsky modified the instrumentation somewhat during the 1940s, but the original version is presented here. The title is intended in its more literal sense, suggesting disparate sonorities sounding together, rather than a reference to the classical form. It is a fascinating work—sonically dry, and rather neutral harmonically and tonally, with intriguing reminiscences of Le Sacre, as it conjures an eerily mysterious primordial vision.
It has become a truism that Copland adopted Stravinsky’s harmonic, timbral, and rhythmic notions, and applied them to elements of American folk melos in devising a style of his own. Though something of an oversimplification, it is essentially an accurate characterization. Emblems is Copland’s only original composition for band, and is intended as a work of substance—“music that is representative of the composer’s best work, … not written with all sorts of technical and practical limitations,” in Copland’s own words. Written in 1963—relatively late in Copland’s compositional career—it is a generally effective work, especially as heard in the stunning performance offered here. However, like many fruits from late in a composer’s career, it betrays a certain lack of spontaneity and commitment, as if he is attempting somewhat half-heartedly to fabricate something new by returning to devices that had by then become rather shopworn. Much of the material is quite angular and dissonant, and inserting a prosaic American folk melody into the proceedings seems contrived and incongruous.
The symphony by Persichetti is another story—a true “Monument for Winds.” If it is hyperbolic to extol it as the greatest of all symphonies for band, this 1956 work is certainly the medium’s first symphonic masterpiece. It is also a brilliant example of American neo-classicism in symphonic application, and one of Persichetti’s greatest—and most widely performed—compositions. As such this exciting, exuberant, and heart-warming work has also been recorded quite a few times. I would have to say that this is the most polished and most technically secure rendition that I have ever heard—meticulously articulated and neatly tailored. However, there is also something a little humorless and perfunctory about the performance, even a little impatient at times, the inner movements especially. One gets the impression that the reading is more about the performance than about the music—in other words, it sounds the way the world’s greatest orchestras sound when they are playing the standard symphonic repertoire. It is a close call, as there are many fine recordings, but if I were to choose just one to represent the work, it would be the very first recording, from 1959, featuring Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble. It may not be as technically perfect as the new Marine Band recording, but the sound quality is still sensational (really!) and there is a palpable enthusiasm notably missing from this new one.
As for the other works, the Triumphal March from Aida and Walton’s Crown Imperial March are accorded the appropriate treatment. Even the Schwanda Polka and Fugue (a piece of music I find almost unbearably detestable) is rendered tastefully. However, I most make special mention of Grainger’s Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away, although it is monumental in neither sense of the word. I am sure that the Grainger mavens out there are thoroughly familiar with this delightful piece scored for a wind ensemble of unusual composition, but it was a new discovery for me. Although the basic tune is banal enough, the way the piece unfolds and, especially, its astonishingly sonorous scoring, with a treatment of lower woodwinds that can make you salivate, produce a result that is absolutely irresistible. For me it is the high point of the disc.
All in all, despite the attempt to present this program with some notion of collective thematic unity, it is truly a disparate potpourri. Collectors of band recordings will jump at it without hesitation, because it offers some of the most proficient band performances ever recorded. However, repertoire-oriented listeners will have to weigh the pros and cons of the program.