SUSATO: Selections from "The Danserye" (arr. Dunnigan). VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: English Folk Song Suite. DEL TREDICI: In Wartime. DAUGHERTY: Bells for Stokowski.
The University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin.
Reference Recordings RR-104 CD (F) {DDD} TT: 64:49

Wow. Ever since the glory days of Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, I've loved a great wind band, and fortunately enough top-notch repertoire floats about for it. In additional to Fennell, I've enjoyed H. Robert Reynolds of Michigan, Timothy Reynish and Clark Rundell in Britain, and now Jerry Junkin's players from the University of Texas in Austin. I can't get over how good this group is. First, it has a superb sound -- full, yet texturally clear -- sharp rhythm (which almost always wins me over), and a real élan, a joy in playing.

You can't really toss off any work here. The Susato is the most straightforward and thus fairly difficult. You can't hide sloppiness behind a complex texture. The ensemble has absorbed the habits of clean playing. I first heard selections from Susato's collection The Danserye on an EMI LP from David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London (excerpts currently available, I believe, on Testament 1080), a terrific performance and, of course, back in the Seventies the last word in HIP. The Dunnigan arrangement for modern band gives a fuller, richer sound, and Junkin's account cedes very little energy to Munrow. I don't prefer one to the other, but enjoy the virtues of both.
The Vaughan Williams English Folk Song Suite reached the status of Instant Classic (symphonic winds division) when it first appeared in 1923, although back then it hadn't much competition. Nevertheless, through the years it's held its own. I love this piece, full of top-notch tunes and almost every note perfectly placed. I would have thought it straightforward, but for some reason many have trouble with it. Denis Wick led a star-studded ensemble of London's best wind players in a lackluster performance. Adrian Boult for once lived up to his stodgy physical image with his account of the orchestral arrangement by Gordon Jacob. Junkin also fails to get the maximum snap and crackle of the work. The slow movement in particular seems mired in syrup. About the only conductor I've heard get the work right is Fennell on Mercury and, to a slightly lesser extent, on Telarc.

The Del Tredici and Daugherty pieces receive their recording premieres. Del Tredici since the late Nineties has worked mainly a "politically-committed" vein. In Wartime, inspired by the Iraq war, falls into two movements: "Hymn" and "Battlemarch." "Hymn" is pretty music, and I mean that as pure description, rather than disparagement. After all, who wouldn't prefer pretty to ugly, all other things being equal? "Pretty" doesn't necessarily mean "inconsequential." It has a simplicity I don't normally associate with Del Tredici. Twice as long as "Hymn," "Battlemarch" carries the weight of the piece. Del Tredici describes it as a dramatic confrontation between West and East -- West represented by a march and East by the Iraqi national anthem. There's an Ivesian conflict between the two, which the march wins. However, the victory brings no triumph, and the piece ends on a wail. The piece gives you everything the description says it will, but I found it an uninvolving exercise. Nevertheless, the UT band delivers an energetic (and precise) reading.

Daugherty's Bells for Stokowski (fantastic title!) takes an original Baroque-like theme and puts it through several sets of free variations. Like In Wartime, it demands a prodigious group, for inspired by Stokowski, Daugherty has written a virtuoso study in timbre and texture. It makes extensive use of "spatial" effects -- the composer wishing to invoke, among other things, Stokowski's experiments in orchestral seating. The piece brims full of references to Stokowski's career, including the Bach orchestrations and the "organ" sound. Apparently, the work is part of Daugherty's Philadelphia Stories, and of course Stokowski's tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra counts as one of the glories of the city's history. Daugherty attaches a quasi-program so silly I don't want to tell it, but his music wins out. The variations are invariably ingenious -- at one point weaving in Bach's C-major prelude from the WTC Book 1, played by an ensemble of little bells -- and many lay out complex layers of independent musical activity without losing a basic pulse by descending into a rhythmic miasma. The piece ends on a typical Stokowski "wow," with massive sonorities from the orchestra invoking the mother of all pipe organs. Again, it takes a band with considerable chops just to sit at the table on this piece. The Texans come through.

Reference Recordings, long known as an audiophile label, certainly lives up to its reputation. The sound is spacious, the sonic spatial image detailed. The complex textures of the Daugherty and the Del Tredici come across clear as water. This is an HDCD disc, but I played it on a "regular" machine. The spectacular sound knocked me over. I'm not so sure it would be necessary for, say, Haydn string quartets, but for these works -- all essentially showpieces -- well, Yowza! I can't even imagine what it would sound like on an HDCD setup.

S.G.S. (October 2004)