Notes and Editorial Reviews
In 2003 the Netherlands Flute Orchestra simultaneously celebrated its 10th, and Henry Brant’s 90th birthdays. The programme was somewhat more ‘serious’ than that of the CD covered in this review, but did contain a spatial piece called Ghosts and Gargoyles (2001); a partner work to Brant’s early pioneering success Angels and Devils (1931). The concept of spatial music with Ghosts was to have a drum-kit centre-stage and a wandering flute soloist – in our case the marvellous Eleonore Pameijer – and four flute ensembles front back and sides beyond the audience. The effect was a continuously varying sound-field, with the attention constantly diverted in a way less conventionally found in today’s concert halls, though more common with ‘surround sound’ in modern cinemas. The effect also worked very well with Brant’s concept of the ‘Missa de Angelis’ performed in various kinds of canon, also with four groups placed at the points of the crucifix in the churches we played. Having experienced and performed Brant’s work firsthand, and looking at the high regard with which this composer is held here in The Netherlands, I feel reviewing this CD is a bit like a ‘home game’.
Many of the recordings on this volume of this excellent Innova release come from the 1984 Holland Festival, which was a major celebration of Brant’s work. This included a performance by several truckloads of flautists moving through the canals of Amsterdam on open boats – an experience some of my more senior colleagues still remember, with mixed feelings it has to be said. Humour is a major factor in this release as some of the titles indicate, but humour in music – or anywhere else for that matter – only really works if there is an underlying seriousness present. In this case there is also a deadly professionalism at work which, if not entirely fireproof in terms of taste for those can’t bear this kind of thing, has an undeniably breathtaking virtuosity of ideas, and shows an unstoppably creative mind hard at work.
Whoopee in D is an overture which mercilessly murders J.S. Bach’s melody to the chorale ‘Wachet auf’. Mercilessly, but not disrespectfully, since the irrepressibly cheery scherzoid idiom goes so far away from Bach that, if you didn’t know the tune, you would probably still ‘get the joke’. Brant does admit that he used the tune to annoy his piano teacher, who used to play the chorale as an encore at recitals. Either way, it appears here played with marvellous élan by a wind ensemble which includes several members of the old Netherlands Wind ensemble, in the richly vibrant acoustic of Vredenburg in Utrecht. The other work on this disc to abuse Bach is the Jazz Toccata on a Bach Theme (Toccata on “Wachet Auf”), in which the melody is subjected to extreme jazz styling in the fashion of Art Tatum. This is heard here in its first public performance ever in the IJsbreker in Amsterdam – well known to contemporary music fans of a certain generation, and appropriately a former billiard hall.
The idea Music for a Five and Dime Store derives from the 1920s and 1930s promotional concept of having a pianist to hand in such shops, ready to play fancy versions of any sheet music available at the counter in order to win over potential customers. I’ve certainly never heard Reinbert de Leeuw play piano with such whacky verve, and with Vera Beths on violin and the composer himself hitting the pots and pans I need say little more about this miniature gem – other than to say, if you are a bit down, this will pick you up in short order.
Revenge Before Breakfast is “a short piece of spatial chamber music for three isolated duos.” The rather dry Poncho Hall acoustic doesn’t really help the illusion of distance between the players, though you do have some sense of distance with the stereo spread from the recording. Relatively quiet, there are some nice dialogues between a lone accordion and some squeaky strings, but the plonky percussion did less for me, and the piece doesn’t really live up to the promise of its title – a subject upon which Brant unfortunately doesn’t elaborate.
With the masterpiece Inside Track we are back ‘on track’, with incredible vocals from Barbara Hannigan, and a piano solo which could be a Conlon Nancarrow piano roll. The work is in fact a piano concerto, with a Dixie ‘street band’, string septet and woodwind quartet spaced around the hall. While the jazz elements have a comic effect, this is sometimes more in the nature of a Kurt Weill or Hans Eisler -esque parody, and often with more of a whiff of lonely nostalgia than ‘in your face’ jokiness. The work was premiered at the 1982 Holland Festival, but appears here in its first Canadian performance in an energetic, if marginally thin-sounding recording.
The Jazz Clarinet Concerto brings out pleasant associations with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, not only with the fine jazz playing of the musicians under Werner Herbers of Ebony Band fame, but also because the 1984 recording has been transferred from a cassette recording, and sounds every bit like an old 1940s mono tape. The piece was in fact written for Goodman, but he never played it, saying it was “too abstract.” This seems hard to credit now, especially as he commissioned and performed works by the likes of Hindemith, Milhaud and Bartók – the piece is every bit as much fun as Bernstein’s ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’. This is an excellent performance, but the work deserves a full digital recording as well – I bet it would sell by the bucket-load.
Double-Crank Hand Organ Music only waits for a vocal from Tom Waits to finish it off. It is “an Ives like attempt to reproduce the actual sounds of the out-of-tune and broken-down hand organs that were common in New York City around that time ” Less of an attempt, it sounds pretty authentic to me – though I admit to a lack in reference material. Jangling piano keys and badly set percussion, and you really do gain the vision of a dusty old mechanical instrument which has well passed its sell-by date. We used to have a few barrel-organs like that in Amsterdam, but they’ve all been tarted up for the tourists now.
Altitude 8750 “refers to the height of a mountain ski resort in Telluride, Colorado, where 16 composers met ... and improvised on musical materials produced by Henry Brant.” The result is a mixture of Brant’s interesting instrumental colouring, the licks and styles of individuals mixed in with a certain amount of structuring. The recording is a rather remote taping of this spontaneous event, but there are some interesting events, and I’m always a sucker for harmonium and vocal clusters. The whole thing gives its secrets up very quickly however, and while it is good improvisation and clearly made a fine concert piece, the recording is unlikely to become a staple over my speakers.
Dialog in the Jungle is preserved here in its 1964 premiere performance. Narrated and performed in a style which might be considered ‘sprechstimme’, but leaning more towards Walton than Schoenberg, the wind band accompanies a fable in which man and a tiger wrestle with the base needs of hunger and the dilemmas of morality which arise. This is all done with great gusto, and with direct as well as some quite subtle humour in the text. The chorales which emerge when the two are ‘beatified’ create an effective apotheosis in what is a no-nonsense, nonsense work of art.
This release is volume 8 of what looks to be a definitive collection of Henry Brant’s recorded works from this label. With tapings from a variety of sources this is no Hi-Fi demonstration disc, but with the sheer vibrancy of most of the manic music on offer here this in fact adds to the charm of this compilation. Interestingly, the Innova website states for this CD that “If your funny bone is not touched in some new way, Innova promises your money back, miseryguts.” I will be interested to see if anyone tries, but once you have this CD I doubt very much if you will want to send it back.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International