I can’t be the only twenty-first-century American for whom That Old-Time Religion is just fine, thank you, and doesn’t need to be improved on by mega-churches and their megawatt ministers. I include as well the old-time religious music known as hymn tunes. At least that’s my thinking when I hear what passes today for “Christian music,” the pallid soft-rock settings of Bible verses featured in contemporary church services. I usually have a similar bone topick with jazzed-up versions of hymn tunes such as those on the current disc from the very talented players of Gabriel V Brass Ensemble and their collaborators, the young (twenty and under) Spirit of America Winter Percussion Ensemble. However, with playing as suave and spirited as this, I really can’t object.
The program leans heavily on arrangements by James Curnow, who’s written extensively for brass band, including arrangements of traditionalmusic. The settings on offer here are all as professional as the playing. Included are tunes old as “Slane” (the music to which “Be Thou My Vision” is set) and as new as Karl Jenkins’sBenedictus, an original piece taken from the composer’s lavish The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo. [Which we reviewed twice; here is the DVD version…Ed.] “Slane,” dating from the eighth century, was “inspired by a moment of defiance from Saint Patrick at a pagan festival on Slane Hill.” The text of “Be Thou My Vision” is even earlier, penned by sixth-century Irish poet St. Dallan Forgaill, known as “the little blind one.”
My favorite pieces on the program are Steven Sherrill’s Variations on Down Ampney, based on a hymn tune by Vaughn Williams, and Curnow’s Fanfare Prelude on “Lobe den Herren,” both of which transform their originals in the most interesting and memorable ways. (My least favorite is the music of Seagull Seven, which, except forEaster Fanfare, doesn’t have much of a churchy or celebratory vibe to it.) The grand finale, Welsh composer Jenkins’s Benedictus, has an appealing folksiness to it that’s refreshing after the brasher settings of the American and Canadian composers.
The recording was set down at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, a venue that has served other projects well, as I recall. But engineer John Newton’s work is especially fine, capturing a real hall sound, with thrilling detail and transparency as well. Given the many virtues on display here, this SACD may well find a larger audience than brass fanciers or fans of hymn tunes in arrangement.
- James Curnow, Prelude on Finlandia
- David Marlatt, Spring
- James Curnow, Be Thou My Vision
- William Mac Davis, Ceremonial Piece on Cwm Rhondda
- Jack Stamp, Declamation on a Hymn Tune
- Seagull Seven, Easter Fanfare
- John Stevens, Benediction
- Seagull Seven and Ian Hale, Fire & Ice
- James Curnow, Meditation—The New Covenant
- Seagull Seven and Ian Hale, Blaze
- James Curnow, Fanfare Prelude on “Lobe den Herren”
- Seagull Seven, Pentecost Fanfare
- Steven Sherrill, Variations on Down Ampney
- Karl Jenkins, Benedictus