Naxos' Trendsetters: Music for Wind Band was such a good idea; four of the defining landmarks of symphonic band literature combined on disc for the first time as performed by Harlan D. Parker and the Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble, one of the oldest and most established symphonic bands in the U.S. Gustav Holst's First Suite in E flat (1909) can be said to have helped establish the very idea of the concert band as something distinctly separate from a typical military unit, whereas Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy (1938) -- while retaining Holst's grounding in folk melody -- brought to the symphonic band a new kind of distinctive harmony and rhythm. Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B flat for band (1951) was a piece that inspired many other modern composers to take up the medium, and finally Joseph Schwantner's ...and the mountains rising nowhere (1976) successfully brought the band -- perhaps kicking and screaming -- under the tent of what was then called "new music." Another thing all of these works have in common is that all were recorded by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell, not all at the same time, naturally, nor on the same album. However, Fennell was always a pretty tough act to follow in almost anything, so Peabody has its work cut out for it.
For half the album, the program works well. Hindemith's B flat Symphony, written for the U.S. Navy band under Lt. Col. Hugh Curry, is tough stuff; Hindemith knew a lot about all the instruments he was dealing with in the ensemble, and he seems to have approached this work with the intention of putting the band through its paces, even to the extent of dropping his gebrauchtsmusik idiom and readopting his "bad boy" idiom from the 1920s. This isn't an ingratiating piece like the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Theme by Carl Maria von Weber, but it's certainly well done here and played with the vigor Hindemith specifically calls for in the score. Also very well performed -- and recorded, by the way -- is Schwantner's mysterious ...and the mountains rising nowhere with its eerie, humming crystal glasses, palpitating percussion, and, for the time, an unusual element in a band piece: its prominent piano part.
However, the Holst and Grainger are both a tad bit less satisfying. Even though it's an "old" piece, there's nothing easy about Lincolnshire Posy and it's not a piece for tired lips; nevertheless, you can hear those lips get tired in the "Lord Melbourne" movement. Likewise, a little more snap might not have hurt the famous, jaunty "March" in the Holst Suite; this sounds cautious and somewhat hesitant. So, while Peabody does not seem able to beat Fred Fennell at his own game here, it still wins considerable yardage for getting this program together on one Naxos disc. For those looking for a primer in the basic symphonic band literature, this is a good option.