British Band Classics Volume Two was the first Mercury classical LP I ever bought. After hearing it at an audiophile friend’s house I went down to Tower Records and found one in the bin. I think the price was $3.99 for the Golden Import pressing you see pictured, which of course was the only one available. That was what I had heard, so I had no idea what the original even looked like, let alone sounded better and would one day sell for many hundreds of dollars.
This was the ’70s, when you could walk into a record store and buy new records, and long before HP created a feeding frenzy for vintage Mercs.
As I’m writing this, I can picture myself in the store. I can still remember that the clerk who helped me find the record commented that I should have come in the week before when the record was on sale for $1 off. I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth that day. This album went on to become one of my personal treasures. I used to marvel at the way the wind instruments actually sounded like the pipes of an organ. (I wasn’t really sure at first that there wasn’t an organ playing somewhere on the record. I didn’t know much about classical music then. )
When I went to England a number of years ago I attended a wind band concert in the park not far from Buckingham Palace. Out in the open the sound was very sweet but dull — the high frequencies dissipate in the open air. It was one of my early lessons in audio. Live sound is not always what it’s cracked up to be, and recorded sound can be amazing — on the right stereo with the right pressing of the right recording.
Much of the credit for the sound on this album must go to Fennell. I’ve been told that he was a stickler for making sure everyone was perfectly in tune and playing correctly within the ensemble. That’s exactly what you hear when you play a record like this — it’s practically sonic perfection.
Also, if you ever see a clean copy of Vol. 1, which is only available in Mono, pick it up. If it’s cut right, it is out of this world.
Side One (Jacob – Suite: William Byrd)
The Earle of Oxford’s Marche
Jhon Come Kisse Me Now
The Mayden’s Song
Walton – Crown Imperial: A Coronation March
Holst – Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo
British military bands are as much a part of life in England as is the famous cup of tea. Just as the hot drink has its very own aroma, British bands have their very own inimitable sound, which is only to be found where it is brewed.
Of course, there’s always an exception, such as when the highly decorated and well-versed Eastman Wind Ensemble and their experienced leader Frederick Fennell set their foot on English soil. The American musicians prove that they can do more than justice to Gordon Jacob’s arrangements of suite movements, which William Byrd originally wrote for the harpsichord in the 17th century. With well-marked rhythmic contours and a freshness of tone, Fennell’s men pipe the music in lofty heights.
In Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith, the ensemble really flexes its muscles and produces precisely the saturated, organ-like cascades of sound that only a wind band can. The “Eastmen’ pull out all the stops, as it were, in Walton’s Crown Imperial March, thus following the dramaturgical plan of this album, which begins softly and dies away in splendor.