Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Nationals 2010 Highlights from the Brass Band Championships of Great Britain

Martin ELLERBY (b.1957) Terra Australis (2005) Brighouse and Rastrick Band QUEEN arr. Peter MEECHAN (b.1980) Innuendo (2008) Foden's Band George LLOYD (1913-1998) Diversions on a Bass Theme (1986) Friary Guildford Band Philip WILBY (b.1949) Psalms and Alleluias (2008) Tylorstown Band Katarina STENSTRÖM arr. Jacob Vilhelm LARSEN (b.1976) 'Eyes of a Child' Helen Williams (flügel horn) with Foden's Band Ennio MORRICONE (b.1928), arr. Robin DEWHURST 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964?) Foden's Band Philip HARPER Willow Pattern (2009) Delph Band Alan FERNIE Royal Mile Suite (1997?) Hazel Grove Band Robin DEWHURST Mambo To Go! Foden's Band

I am always amazed at the superb musicality of brass bands. It is not just the quality of the playing that impresses me, but the adventurousness of the repertoire. When I hear the local town brass band on the sea-front, more often than not they are playing arrangements of standards, pop classics and old favourites. After the film Brassed Off there was a huge demand for ‘Orange Juice’ or rather the slow movement from Rodrigo’s ubiquitous guitar concerto! Yet there is a more profound side to the world of brass band music – that of the seemingly endless competitions. In the present CD’s case this is the Brass Band Championship of Great Britain, 2010 which took place in October in Harrogate and at the Royal Albert Hall. The disc showcases six pieces that were written specifically for the medium, played back to back with three arrangements.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the ‘original’ pieces much more than the arrangements: however I guess that the judges are looking at an all-round technique and exploitation of both massed brass and soloist endeavours. So a wide stylistic variety of pieces is important.

However, I need to get some gripes off my chest before I can review this otherwise excellent CD with an equitable mind. Four things really annoyed me. Firstly, I had to spend nearly an hour on the Internet trying to find dates for composers, arrangers and compositions. In many cases I failed. For some reason a number of ‘living’ composers’ websites do not give their date of birth! I have never been embarrassed about my age – so why should they? More importantly, D.O.B. gives the listener (and reviewer) some historical background that can be very important when evaluating a given piece. Secondly, it is essential to know when a piece of music was composed and how it is situated in the timeline of the composer’s other music in particular and musical history in general. Thirdly, whoever designed the liner-notes needs to re-evaluate their art. Trying to read a small font on a largely grey background with a superimposed picture of the Albert Hall is not easy even when the eyes are top-notch! It may look good on the computer: it is less impressive for those of us with aging or failing sight. Lastly, there are nine works presented on this CD – the liner-notes fail to discuss four of them. So I will have little to say about them except whether I like them of not! Right … now on to the music!

Of the composers presented here only three are known to me: however in the world of brass, I guess that the rest are important and regular contributors of new scores.

Martin Ellerby’s Terra Australis is a powerful work which musically explores the history and landscape of that great country. From the ‘spirit of Captain Cook searching the coastal waters’ through the observation of the indigenous population to the joy of a new life and optimistic future, the triumphs and the tragedies, the vast unexplored vistas’: they are all represented here. The music is satisfying, approachable but never derivative. The work concludes with a massive ‘Anthem for a Nation’. The work was played by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band who were declared the winners of the Championship Section at the Albert Hall.

Possibly one of the most impressive works on this CD is the Diversions on a Bass Theme by George Lloyd. This is, I believe, regarded as an extremely difficult work by the brass band fraternity. Certainly, based on the performance given by the Friary Guildford Band this piece appears complex, diverse and technically ‘impossible’. Yet they give an excellent account of what is quite evidently a ‘warhorse’. I notice that the CD catalogues contain two other versions of this work – by the Grimethorpe and Black Dyke Mills bands. So they are in great company.

The work was commissioned by the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation in 1986 as the test-piece for the annual Mineworkers National Brass Band Contest. The composer appended a note to the score: ‘This piece is a set of variations. Traditionally variations were what they said they were, i.e. a given tune was treated in a variety of ways. The pattern of Diversions on a Bass Theme is made the other way round: a number of tunes grow out of the first bar, played by the Basses, which provides the motif for the whole work.’ It is surely one of the masterpieces of the brass band world.

Philip Wilby has written that his Psalms and Alleluias is ‘a big piece for little people’: it was composed for the National Children’s Band of Great Britain in 2008. All I can say is that they must be absolutely top-flight to be able to play such a complex and involved, but ultimately effective piece. There is no way that Wilby has written down to the players: in fact he has stretched them beyond the call of duty. This is thoroughly enjoyable music that is varied and calls for showcasing of solo instruments. The central section is truly beautiful and downright moving. The Tylorstown Band gives a great account of this work.

I will lightly pass over the arrangements as being ‘fillers’ to what is the main event. There are three works – Innuendo, which is based on a Queen tune, the Stenstrom song 'Eyes of a Child' and a theme from 'A Fistful of Dollars'. They appear to me to be workmanlike arrangements with little to recommend them except perhaps in the realm of technical difficulty.

Willow Pattern by Philip Harper is a musical evocation of the renowned ceramic pattern designed by Thomas Minton in the 1790s and seen in houses and tearooms ever since. There are a number of different versions of the romantic tale that supposedly inspired this design. The key thing to listen for in this gorgeous piece is the masterly use of the solo instruments. The conclusion of the legend has the two lovers transformed into turtle doves who soar into the sky. This imagery is well-presented by the Delph Band.

I think that my favourite piece on this CD was A Royal Mile Suite by the Scottish composer Alan Fernie. This was composed in 1989 and within the confines of its four movements celebrates the historical Royal Mile in Edinburgh. To remind listeners, this street runs from Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament building up to the Castle. On the way it passes many fine buildings and institutions, including St Giles Cathedral. The first movement gives a regal account of the listener’s mood At the Palace Gates. This leads on to the heart of the work, which is a meditation in the beautiful Holyrood Park with the brooding Salisbury Craggs of Arthur’s Seat. It is a misty morning to boot. However, for a brief moment the skies clear and a glorious view is given – from the Bass Rock to Ben Lui. The third movement changes mood to suggest the ambiguous life of Nancy McElhose, an eighteenth-century lady who ran a tea shop by day and a brothel by night! It is chock-full of Scottish colour and deserves its title of Jenny Ha’s Reel. The final movement is an impressive, if slightly languorous march. Having walked the length of the Royal Mile on many occasions, from the Palace to the Castle I can sympathise with the slight feeling of (intended) lethargy. All in all this is a great work.

The liner-notes give no information about Mambo to Go composed by Robin Dewhurst, however this an exciting piece that would make a fine encore. Based on a dance-form originally developed in Havana by a certain Cachao this is a cool exploration of rhythm and brass instrumental colour. The word ‘Mambo’ means a ‘conversation with the gods’. The performance on this recording was taken from a pre-competition concert by Foden’s Band. It makes a great finish to the CD.

Apart from the reservations noted above, this is a superb CD. It will no doubt be in the collection of all brass band players and enthusiasts. However, there is a wider attraction than this specialist market. I guess most people love the sound of a brass band, whether it is the Salvation Army band playing hymns and carols at Christmas, or maybe the local band giving a summer’s day recital in the town square. It is good to push beyond the ‘arranged favourites’ and discover something of the music that has been specifically composed for the medium. The listener will find much to enjoy and be moved by.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

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