This is a splendid collection of band music from the prolific pen of Robert Russell Bennett. He writes superbly for band, using skillful orchestrations which utilize all the sectional colors to great effect. While the Suite of Old American Dances is very well known, much of the remainder of this disc is not often heard.
The Down to the Sea in Ships suite (derived from a 1950s TV series) is perhaps not one of his best creations, but the Four Preludes and Symphonic Songs for Band are enjoyable. The excellent Autobiography, one of the most recent compositions included here (1977), is arguably best of all - right up there in inspiration and appeal with his Old American Dances. This music is endlessly inventive, interesting and musically substantive. It deserves to be better known and performed more often. It is not difficult music and I could imagine the best high school bands could easily make a splendid concert out of this material. It certainly provides no challenges for a college-level group, especially not one as accomplished as the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra, recorded here.
Indeed, this band is very much of professional caliber. Not for a moment did anything expose this to be a college band rather than a professional group. However, it is worth noting this is not a symphonic band as the "wind orchestra" naming of it might infer. It is a wind ensemble in every description of that nomenclature. This is a one-on-a-part group, revealed not only by the precision of ensemble but also by the personnel listing in the booklet (2 flutes, 4 clarinets, etc.). However, this not a detriment to the music-making. They play with energetic dynamic contrasts, and the woodwinds are in no way anemic. The clarinets bite through the textures splendidly (and the Eb clarinetist, in particular, is superb). As a matter of fact, the entire woodwind and saxophone sections produce a rich body and texture of tone that usually only multiples of players can. They produce an abundance of color and richness, with impressive musical phrasing all though. It is all performed with great freshness, alert attention to details, dramatic dynamics and splendidly chosen tempos.
As to the recording, I have a bit of bad news to report. Unfortunately, the band is recorded with the mics a bit too close to the bass drum and it booms unnaturally and annoyingly all through the concert. It does not seem to be purposely spotlit (ala Reference Recordings' releases) but an oversight - perhaps not noticed by an inattentive recording engineer using less than full-range speakers to monitor the proceedings. This is a surprise coming from Chandos and it's very unfortunate; there is a lot of oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah writing in these scores and it ends up sounding BOOM-pah, BOOM-pah, BOOM-pah, especially in loud passages. It really does detract from an otherwise excellent recording.
Overall, I still recommended this disc to anyone interested in further exploring this great composer's wind compositions. They are very rewarding, and this band is excellent. Too bad about that boomie bass drum, however.
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