Wind-band Premieres and Berlioz’s Funeral and Triumphal Symphony – RCM (14 November)

Vaughan Williams
Toccata marziale
Diaghilev Dances [London Premiere]
Time’s Harvest
Cretan Dances [World Premiere]
Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op.15

Royal College of Music Wind Orchestra
Timothy Reynish

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 November, 2003
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

The main business was the opportunity to hear the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale up close and personal played here by an orchestra of 99, virtually half the size of the orchestra that Berlioz conducted for the premiere en plein air at the Bastille. Heard in the confines of the RCM’s Concert Hall such numbers created an overwhelming impression.

Before this climax we were treated to a classic of the wind-band repertoire, Vaughan Williams’s Toccata marziale plus three contrasting pieces by living composers, all associated with the RCM and all in attendance. It’s not too often that a conductor can turn to the audience and say “Composers take a bow” and have three rise to their feet!

I was sitting towards the back – the RCM’s beautiful Hall seemed to have the acoustic of a Turkish bath which did Vaughan Williams’s crisp Toccata few favours, excellently though it was played. After the interval, the Berlioz was heard from the more exclusive balcony seats, which sounded infinitely better.

Of the trio of contemporary works, Kenneth Hesketh’s Diaghilev Dances is an abstract mini-ballet of three dances linked by entr’actes, prefaced by an introduction. According to composer, Diaghilev Dances is intended to evoke the lush soundworlds of Glière and Tcherepnin. In addition to a full complement of wind and percussion, there is a harp, piano and double bass. To this listener it sounded more like Daphnis meets Firebird, impressionist music that nonetheless packs quite a punch. As Edwin Roxburgh, Hesketh’s one-time teacher, said in his own subsequent introduction, “Follow that!”

Roxburgh’s Time’s Harvest seemed, by contrast, almost the epitome of restraint. This was a Millennium commission, which, Janus-like, looks backward at the horrors of the century passed and forward with optimism. The piece is not an easy listen, the reminiscence of the past more than bleak and the supposed optimism only a little less so. The piece features important solo parts for clarinet and trumpet, finely played by Francisco Canto-Carrillo and trumpeter Craig Burnett.

Then came the premiere of Adam Gorb’s Cretan Dances, four popular Cretan dances – the 5/8 second is undoubtedly easier if you are a Cretan peasant. This is music consciously written for entertainment but this did not preclude some fine sensitive playing from all concerned in the more introspective third movement.

All the new music was performed with commitment and enthusiasm, though the acoustic made detail difficult to hear.

By contrast, however, the resonance came into its own with the gigantic sounds of Berlioz. He himself thought highly of this piece and, in a performance of this grandeur and visceral impact, he was clearly right – this stood up fully as a valid musical experience, not as just an occasional piece or freak of nature.

The first movement’s long, funeral march developed a hypnotic momentum, its climax capped and thrust home by some quite extraordinary trombone playing from Selina Leleu (leading a section of eight) which simply kept on coming. After a slightly tentative start the ’real’ trombone soloist, Jonathon Spanyol, played the second movement Oration with finesse, whilst the triumphal finale went with an irresistible swing.

All credit to the conductor, Timothy Reynish, a specialist in wind-band music and also to the whole ensemble; the future of British wind- and brass-playing is bright. It would be wonderful to hear the Berlioz again in the space of the Royal Albert Hall (at next year’s Proms) with the RCM teaming-up with the LSO’s wind and brass under Sir Colin Davis – that would be somewhere near the scale of Berlioz’s original performance.

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