Bramwell Tovey’s considerable skills as conductor, composer and pianist combine in this disc to produce a marvellous array of sounds, insights and emotion. The half-dozen works—spanning nearly three decades—are engaging, enlightening and edifying, due in no small part to the commitment of the artists under the spotlight.
Coventry Variations is much more than a harmonic, rhythmic and orchestration treatise on the centuries-old carol. It’s a purposely horrific cautionary tale depicting the massive destruction of Coventry by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The poignant coloured hymn is surrounded by breathless, forward-moving brass bombers, occasionally interjected with muted chatter. The low brass of the excellent Foden’s Band growl and roar with passion, but also deliver organ-like blends of “calmo” chords between outbursts. The cornets are models of control—notably in the softer moments; intriguingly, a twinge of flatness in one high-range last gasp only adds to the tone of anger and despair. The solo euphonium’s line is creatively underscored by an Alberti bass that incessantly repeats in the manner of a siren announcing an imminent attack. After a massive Holst-rich/Bernstein-lite blast, the ugly power of war finds major resolution. The microphone placement, balance and mix give the music a somewhat distant sound, which, nonetheless, seems at one with the intent of describing something from decades back.
Pictures in Smoke is a delightful compendium of “Beauty and the Beasts,” filled with saucy fun and jazz-infused writing. As pianist, Tovey displays his magical touch and innate sense of timing—truly leading by example—that is rewarded with some of the tightest ensemble of all. Here, the balance is much improved—ideal for the array of moods and colours that incessantly spill into the ear. Although the dance hall is never far away, the reflective moments are especially memorable. Tovey’s quiet lines are reminiscent of Satie’s haunting, repetitious style; there’s a child-like warmth below the euphonium melody that goes right to the heart and a cornet tune that seem yet another variation on “Coventry Carol.” But when frenzy is desired, the band (particularly its spot-on percussionists) happily complies with rhythmic surety that beautifully captures the organized chaos. Would that some wise choreographer take up this Invitation to the Dance—perhaps in time for the orchestral version expected in 2010?
The two shorter works are welcome sherbets between courses: Toccata has energy to burn and a relentless drive; St. Norbert Chorale is a bell-laden soundscape that paints a clear picture, offers near-perfect ensemble and an impressive decibel variety which is, undoubtedly, Dies Irae indeed.
Trombonist Joseph Alessi sails engagingly through The Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret, seemingly effortlessly employing his facile, flexible home on all ranges and utilizing his unfailing embouchure and breath control (not to mention a few multiphonics) to render Tovey’s score with brilliance, flair and introspective acumen. Anyone who’s ever endured an unending traffic jam can only hope that their stolen time is made bearable by such an invigorating tonic.
Multi-talented Mark Fewer brings his violin wizardry and not inconsiderable narrative skills to Nine Daies Wonder. The solo part is a veritable An Actor’s Tale that at times speeds along “Perpetuum mobile,” bends and shifts with the blues, dances up a storm (where it infrequently occurred that perhaps a couple of the players metaphorically stopped by Angel Tavern), slips lovingly in “Oh Danny Boy”-esque folk tune, or lets the pizzicato do the walking into “Farewell to the Essex Girls.” The quoted verses (mostly from Shakespeare) certainly add another dimension but seem most effective when enthusiastically answered by the brassy chorus. By journey’s end, only a stark octave remains. Comfortable in his musical skin on all fronts, Tovey has the courage to end the work as it was heard, not as the means to automatic adulation. With this collection, the music speaks for itself. JWR