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CD Cover - Ghosts

Ghosts - Klavier K11150

Philharmonia à Vent/ Boyd

Available from Klavier Music Productions or any record shop

Title Year Composer Duration
Morning Music1987Richard Rodney Bennett15.57
Ghosts2000Stephen McNeff20.54
Capriccio1932/1973Gustav Holst5.15
L'Homme Armé2003Christopher Marshall17.53

In the same week that I learned of the withdrawal of my repertoire disc with the RCM Wind Orchestra of works by Sallinen, Roxburgh, Holloway, Bingham and Casken, I learned of the release of a disc with three of my commissions, so you win some and you lose some!

This is a terrific disc (I am biased of course), particularly for the very American up-front performances by Philharmonia à Vent conducted by John Boyd, and the incredibly informative and often very amusing sleeve-notes by Giles Easterbrook. One correction needs to be made at the outset; Giles claims to have been sitting next to me during the world première of Bennett's Morning Music. Maybe he fell asleep during Hello Dolly and did not notice me slipping onto the podium to conduct the Northshore Concert Band.

In addition to a frustratingly short snippet of Gustav Holst, the disc contains three sets of variations which I commissioned over the past two decades. The Bennett I commissioned for the Boston WASBE in 1987, the Marshall for WASBE in Sweden in 2003, and the McNeff for a BASBWE Conference in 2002. It is good to hear Bennett's Morning Music in another interpretation, clean and crisp, with some superb playing and careful controlled rubato and balance. I still believe that this is one of the finest works of the last twenty five years, closely constructed and argued, lyrical, wonderfully scored, lyrical and singable despite being basically a serial work.

Ghosts is a wonderfully inventive piece, a set of seven variations on a Haunting theme with an Epilogue. Written for school or amateur groups, the composer suggests disarmingly that you can leave any variations which are too difficult, and each stands alone - the result is a kind of wind band Enigma Variations. Here John Boyd's approach pays huge dividends in the clarity and brilliance of articulation, emphasising the wit and spontaneity of this theatrical piece.

If Ghosts looks back in its characterisations to Elgar, L'Homme Armé is loosely built on the Symphonic Variations by Dvorak. Giles writes winningly of the political messages, the musical devices and the influences from jazz, Maori war chant and funeral march. Here I actually find the American approach unyielding and harsh. Those repeated jazz-inflected tags in the first variation I really do not need to hear hurled at me, though I suspect the composer prefers it to my laid back version. I loved the hazy ghosting in variation three, and there are fine solos throughout, especially here by alto saxophone and piccolo, later by euphonium and solo trumpets. The Haka lacks passion, it is too tidy and organised; John has probably never viewed the All Blacks' war cry before they pummel the Brits into submission at rugger. In fact a lot of the playing is very tidy and accurate, so that sometimes we lose the phrasing and the line which are two of my obsessions. The Ländler movement is wonderfully played but to my taste lacks freedom and forward movement, with the 12/16 and the little Shostakovich march a little staid and pedantic, but it is fascinating again to hear a completely different interpretation.

My big caveat is over the canons near the beginning of the finale which I think only work in the tutti if everyone is showing a really vocal phrasing. That said, one can only sit back and admire the individual expertise of John's handling of the sometimes dense orchestration and also his skill in managing those devilish time changes.

The new (to me) work on the disc is John Boyd's expert transcription of Holst's Capriccio, originally written for what Giles describes as a curious hybrid beast, half wind band-half orchestra, that was Shilkret's radio orchestra... not actually a wind piece... more a basis for negotiation. Snippets of folk like material, of marches, reminiscences of Hammersmith and The Songs without Words make this a fascinating kaleidoscope of ideas, deftly woven into a too-short five minute piece.

This then is a first rate recording of three major works, all in variation form, easy yet intriguing listening, with a bonus of unknown Holst.