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Henry Brant - Music for Massed Flutes

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Artist: Henry Brant

Album: Music for Massed Flutes

Label: New World

Review date: Sep. 30, 2006

Not half as dense or heavy as the title might imply, Music for Massed Flutes details an interesting niche in the career of composer Henry Brant. Born in 1913, Brant has been known for decades as a pioneer of spatial composition, in which the location of the musicians in the performance space is as important as the notes that are played. A penchant of Brant that receives less attention is that of composition for homogeneous ensembles; the composer has written for groups of guitars, trumpets and trombones. This compilation collects three of Brant’s works for multiple flutes, presented in reverse chronological order, spanning from Angels and Devils, performed in 1931, when Brant was 28, to Ghosts and Gargoyles, which Grant wrote in 2001, 70 years later.

Ghosts and Gargoyles, composed partially as a sequel to Angels and Devils, begins the disc, and though the sequencing of the album makes it a little more difficult to gauge the progression of Brant’s work, there are consistencies between the pieces that bridge the 70 years. Angels and Devils was written when Brant was only 18, and though the recording on this disc dates from a 1956 LP, it’s still a document of his precocious skill. The piece, made up of three movements, is reminiscent of film soundtrack work of the time, with lush melodic work, and plenty of ornamental flourishes. Frederick Wilkins is the soloist, though the rest of the ensemble is equally instrumental in providing the piece’s richest moments. Angels and Devils can be maudlin, though it’s easy to chalk such work up to the time at which Brant was composing, and the more sentimental points in the composition are usually relieved by a more winsome energy; the flutes cavorting like butterflies, full of a frivolity. The levity of the piece is stark in light of more contemporary work, and can be off-putting, though Brant’s sincerity is never in doubt.

In the decades since this early work, Brant’s aesthetics have surely shifted, so it’s no surprise that Ghosts and Gargoyles is a departure from its predecessor. The tone of the piece isn’t so bright, and while Brant’s updated aesthetic isn’t a wholly sinister one, there’s a darker bent that appears throughout the piece. Brant’s flittering melodies have survived the years, though they’re not as vibrant as those that made up much of Angels and Devils. The third movement of the newer work takes a more solemn tone, with drawn-out playing in the lower registers, accompanied by a higher, but no more active solo from Robert Aitken. As Ghosts and Gargoyles unfolds over its 10 movements, the tone shifts frequently, and while there are some segments of the piece that represent some of the most interesting work on the disc (the popcorn-like effect of the eighth, for example), the piece struggles to find any vestige of consistency, and comes off more as a series of short melodic showcases than a larger whole.

Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes (Mass for June 16), sandwiched between the aforementioned works, is the album’s most concretely conceptual, an arrangement of the Gregorian chant for said date taken from the Graduale Romanum. As is to be expected, it’s a somber piece, and one of rich depth. Brant cannot, of course, be given credit for the basic composition, but the adaptation of the liturgical music for an undetermined number of flutes provides the piece with an ethereal quality that’s in contrast of that invoked by a choral performance of the mass.

To modern ears, Henry Brant’s work for flutes may sound a tad antiquated, but Music for Massed Flutes provides a interesting view of a man who has also written for 50 guitars or an ensemble made up completely of fire truck sirens. The overt emotion in much of the work lends itself well to the flutes, and while those in search of more challenging listening may be unsatisfied by the disc, the work contained therein certainly isn’t schmaltz. Music for Massed Flutes is a smartly-designed reissue of Brant’s works for flute; though not without its trouble spots (the track order is a big one), it offers an interesting chance to compare and contrast works by a composer who, 70 years on, still works with the feeling that inspired him as a young man.

By Adam Strohm

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