CD cover - The Promised LandThe Promised Land

18-Apr-2007

Cory Band
Conductor: Dr Robert Childs
Doyen Recordings: CD218
Total Playing Time: 72.33 mins

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Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.

There cannot be too many people who wouldn't know at least a couple of lines from William Williams great hymnal – be it from thrice Sunday services in small non conformist Welsh chapels to the ever so slightly drunken, but spontaneous choral tradition that once urged the national rugby team to victory at the Arms Park.

Many people have taken inspiration from it – even as far as being used in the Oscar winning film ‘How Green was my Valley' to the funeral service of Diana Princess of Wales.  As with many more, neither had relevance to its original inspirational intention.

Kenneth Downie fully understands however the history and meaning behind the iconic hymn, even though the words were first put into print in 1745 in Welsh (and were subsequently translated into English, sometimes incorrectly – it was originally translated as ‘Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness'). The tune itself wasn't written by John Hughes of Dowlais near Merthyr Tydfil until the great second Welsh religious revival of 1905, and not subsequently published until as late as 1932. That Welsh rugby crowds sung it when beating the English and the All Blacks before this time is therefore something of an urban myth.

Downie's personal appreciation 'The Promised Land' was written for the 2006 European Championships, and is a veritable tour de force of technical pyrotechnics and musical drama. He brings a liberal interpretation to the biblical story of the Hebrew Exodus as set out by Williams in his original five stanza work (the fragmentary use of Joseph Parry's iconic ‘Myfanwy' pays homage to the later 19th century Welsh exodus to Philadelphia and Patagonia regions in the Americas) and although there is a very distinctive Welsh flavour to the music, the original narrative line is never lost. It is not Downie at his most lyrical or inventive perhaps (some of the technical effects seem misplaced) but it is still a highly rewarding work when delivered in such authoritative fashion as it is here by both MD and band. 

William Blake's ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street' may not have the same immediate resonance as the Williams inspired hymnal (Blake was cut from a very different cloth), but it too has become assimilated into popular culture – although once again, far removed from the original intention of its 1793 publication.

Edward Gregson sought his own musical connection from its inspiration as far back as 1989 on a trip across Canada. A work of major importance, 'Of Men and Mountains' has nevertheless been almost completely ignored (it did pop up as a regional test piece in 1993) due to the myopic conservatism of major contest organisers and a somewhat cussed response from the composer himself.

A broad and lyrical symphonic work it explores rich, fertile musical territory from a composer who allows himself free rein of expression in his writing, inspired by the juxtaposition of the elemental natural beauty of the terrain to the technical accomplishment of its bridging by rail. It really is a majestic work delivered in majestic style.

Philip Sparke's ‘Year of the Dragon' also has a very Welsh inspiration – written as it was for the Cory Band's centenary celebrations back in 1984. It remains a truly fantastic work for brass band, combining the immense technical challenges of its outer movements allied to perhaps one of the most inspiring interludes ever written for the medium. It is also a work that has long deserved a performance of this magnitude too, as its popularity has in many ways lessened its dramatic impact over the years.

Cory delivers a performance of true fire breathing ferocity in both the brittle ‘Toccata' and rapid ‘Finale' that would singe the eyebrows if you sit to close to the CD speakers, whilst Chris Thomas is a superbly languid trombone lead in the ‘Interlude'. This is a performance that reinvigorates a work that deserves its place back on the top most plinth of brass band composition.

If there is a slight weakspot to this outstanding recording then it comes with James Curnow's ‘Trittico for Brass Band', written in 1988 and used at the European Championships the following year. It too takes hymnal inspiration, this time from an early American hymn ‘Consolation', which the composer uses to develop the work onto four sections of theme and variations structure.   There is much to admire in the clearly defined approach and the playing from the band is first rate, but whereas the three other works extend their ideas to a greater degree of substance (Trittico is only 12 minutes long compared to the more extended 15 – 18 minutes of the first three works) Curnow's work seems rather unfulfilling and sits rather uneasily as a result in comparison.

Finally, the only non test piece work of the recording – Gareth Wood's interesting ‘A Tear in the Fabric of Time' – again inspired by the written word; Brian Greene's ‘The Elegant Universe', of which there are not too many aphorisms to trip off the tongue in casual conversation down the local on a Friday night. 

It is however an ensemble piece of powerful resonance, if somewhat episodic in nature, with robust angular motifs interspersed with lyrical excerpts and somewhat darker, colder timbres. There is a determined sense of rhythmic drive in the opening Allegro which leads to an intriguing sense of desolation in the choral inspired Adagio. The final Presto echoes past material to bring the work to a rousing finish.  Although the complexity of the source material may well be beyond the comprehension of mere mortals not blessed with the brain matter of a Stephen Hawkins, the musical picture created by the composer, the band and the MD is both accessible and clearly defined.

It also rounds off a very high class recording from the Cory Band under Dr Robert Childs. Five works of importance and of interesting heritage and inspiration are delivered in excellent fashion and the recording and production values enhance things also. There may not be too many better releases this year.

Iwan Fox

What's on this CD?

1. The Promised Land, Kenneth Downie, 16.13
2. Of Men and Mountains, Edward Gregson, 17.47
3. The Year of the Dragon, Philip Sparke, 14.52
4. Trittico, James Curnow, 11.56
5. A Tear in the Fabric of Time, Gareth Wood, 11.41

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