CD cover - Twenty Supreme YearsTwenty Supreme Years

20-Feb-2006

Howard Snell and Eikanger Bjorsvik Musikklag
Conductor: Howard Snell
Soloists: Tormod Flaten, Marin Winter, Gyda Matland, Jane Westervik, Grethe Tonheim, Hagne Holmos, Espen Haukas, Andreas Lien Roe, Craig Farr
Bocchino Music Recordings: CDBOCC106
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Howard Snell has been a musician driven by the pursuit of excellence. As a player, conductor, composer and arranger his immense talent has been focused with a degree of certainty of purpose that the results; Principal Trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor of the Wren Orchestra, composer and arranger of some of the finest works for brass band, have perhaps never really received the recognition they fully deserved. 

One of his greatest achievements has been the development of the Eikanger Bjorsvik Brass Band from a disparate group of talented, enthusiastic, but directionless musicians into one of the foremost and committed brass ensembles in the world. When he walked into their bandroom in 1986 they were recognised as the possibly the best brass band in Norway, but in the general scheme of things (and especially in relation to the best bands in the UK), they were nothing special.

Within three years they had won the European Brass Band Championships on two successive occasions and had become a byword for innovation, excellence and quite stunning ability. They were now a very special band indeed.

In two decades since that first inauspicious start, Snell's almost paternal association (sometimes directly in contests and with concerts) and sometimes, more recently, indirectly (through compositions and artistic input) has seen the combination blossom into a symbiotic relationship that has proved almost inspirational.

This excellent CD release showcases just why that is so.

It would have been quite easy to have made three of four recordings of the brilliant music Snell has brought to the banding world through his amazing ability to arrange works for brass as varied in style as Ketelby and Berlin, to Bizet, Beethoven and Bach. No other arranger has managed to do what Snell has been able to do: the ability to explore new colours and timbres, textures and shades and bring them together with such balance and transparency to the brass band. Sometimes he has done it with the boldest of strokes, sometimes with delicacy and precision.

The 18 tracks on show here not only illuminate Snell's skills, but also that of the current Eikanger Band. The programme is varied; from the colossal ‘Passacaglia in C Minor' by Bach (a stunning achievement of the arrangers art) to the dry wit of Ketelby's ‘The Clock with the Dresden Figures' (brought to life with an almost caustic sense of the cleverness by Snell and his performers). In between we have an intoxicating mixture: a superbly erudite 'Irving Berlin Suite', a driving almost fearsome touch of Wagner and Khatachurian; the beauty and elegance of Bizet, Beethoven and Albinoni and the sophistication and intelligence of  Milhaud, Tchaikovsky and Albeniz.   

Snell's own sense of mischief is evident on the clever opener, ‘Bank Holiday' which nods and winks in the general direction of the type of dryly sophisticated composers that he so cleverly arranges elsewhere on the disc.

The ensemble playing is of a rare quality, whilst the solo work is at times stunning. The pick of a very high class crop is undoubtedly Martin Winter in the Bellini 'Concerto'. This is a world class artist at work. It would be a little trite to compare the rest of Eikanger's soloists to him as he is one of a very rare breed indeed, but it is safe to declare that each of the solo contributions do not suffer in comparison. 

The two more extended works literally take the breath away though. The opening to the finale from the Second suite from ‘Daphnis and Chloe' still has the ability to stop you in your tracks – all due to Snell's skill in balancing a huge chord structure as if made out of musical gossamer. It is perhaps part of the most thrilling orchestral arrangement for brass in the history of the brass band movement, and some twenty years after Desford wowed the world at the European Championships it is ripe for reappraisal at the very highest level once more.

The Bach may be cut from a different musical cloth, but the achievement of bringing it so vibrantly to life is mesmeric. The complexity of its structure is so clearly laid out by the arranger that the different colours and textures of the thematic material is never lost, whilst the build to the huge climax is superbly measured by arranger and performers alike.  

In the last twenty years, Eikanger's own pursuit of excellence has at times come unstuck. They have yet to repeat the two European wins of 1988 an 1989, whilst on the domestic front their position as Norway's premier brass band has been challenged both by rivals and by their desire to put musical integrity first, sometimes at the expense of contest success.

It also highlights the one weakness with this release too, as it sounds at times to be ‘over engineered'. Technically it is so polished that some pieces are robbed of their immediacy. The balance between sections of the band sometimes sounds ‘enhanced' rather than ‘true' whilst the ambience of the recording can at times appear a little cold and dead. That search for ultimate excellence has resulted in a technically brilliant recording that just lacks warmth and the sense of adrenalin inspired performing.

That though does not detract from what is an excellent release of an amazing talent in the form of Howard Snell, and a superb brass band in the form of Eikanger Bjorsvik.

Iwan Fox 

What's on this CD?

1. Bank Holiday, Howard Snell, 2.19
2. Concerto, Bellini arr.Snell, 6.17
Soloist: Martin Winter
3. Adagio, Beethoven arr.Snell, 5.53
4. Cossack Dance from Mazeppa, Tchaikovsky arr.Snell, 3.38
5-8. Irving Berlin Suite Arr.Snell
5. Anything You Can Do, 1.42
6. A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody, 4.22
Soloist: Gyda Matland
7. It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow, 3.08
Soloist: Jane Westervik
8. Puttin' on the Ritz, 2.29
9. Finale Act 1 Lohengrin, Wagner arr.Snell, 3.22
10. The Flower Song, Bizet arr.Snell, 4.32
Soloist: Tormod Flaten
11. The Clock with the Dresden Figures, Ketelby arr.Snell, 3.33
12. Adagio, Albinoni arr.Snell, 6.49
13. Tango, Albeniz arr. Snell, 2.40
14. Londonderry Air, Trad. arr.Snell, 3.35
Soloist: Grethe Tonheim
15. Daphnis and Chloé (Finale 2nd Suite), Ravel arr.Snell, 4.54
16. Scaramouche Brasiliera, Milhaud arr. Snell, 2.27
17. Russian Dance, Khatachurian arr.Snell, 4.02
18. Passacaglia in C Minor, Bach arr.Snell, 12.30

Total playing time: 79.20

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