Highlights from the European Brass Band Championships: 2011
This compilation of works played at the European Brass Band Championships 2011 in Montreux cannot fail to impress. There is music here for all tastes – from works especially composed for brass forces through to arrangements of well-known favourites by way of a few novelty pieces. Doyen has wisely left audience sounds and applause on these tracks and this adds greatly to the atmosphere of sheer fun and enjoyment that must have been a huge part of the week’s activities.
There are a number of major brass band works on these discs that deserve attention. The CD gets off to an impressive start with the Swiss composer Oliver Waespi’s Audivi Media Nocte which was one of the set-pieces. It is a complex and invigorating composition that exploits a volatile mixture of ‘virtuosity and lyricism, frenetic energy and calm expansiveness’. It’s a work that will certainly appeal to the brass band cognoscenti.
The twenty-year old Jean-Selim Abdelmoula provides a dramatic Toccata for Brass Band which once again is perfectly tailored to the medium. It sounds extremely intricate in design and makes a fine test-piece.
The first CD ends with Edward Gregson’s large-scale Of Men and Mountains. Gregson’s website notes that the piece ‘was commissioned by the Netherlands Brass Band championships for their tenth anniversary contest in Drachten in December 1990.’ The notes continue by setting the work in context: ‘In July the previous year ... [Gregson] and his wife took the Trans-Canadian Railway from Toronto to Vancouver.’ The journey through the Rocky Mountains was the starting point for Of Men and Mountains. Gregson writes that: 'its high peaks and shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds, its canyons and ferocious rapids made me understand a little more about the majesty of nature and the fragility of humanity. The eternal struggle between man and nature was personified in the building of this incredible railway hence my title (after Blake).' This is a major piece of work that has staked its claim to a place in the brass band repertoire. Complex, diffuse and often impressionistic it is a worthy challenge to players and listeners alike.
Old Licks Bluesed Up by Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen is a long, multi-faceted piece lasting some 18 minutes. The composer explores a number of Bach-like figurations but brings them very much up to date: a good balance between the past and present. The percussion section is very much to the fore with some especially good passagework for the vibraphone.
Jan Van Der Roost’s From Ancient Times was apparently inspired by the Franco-Flemish School of the Renaissance – artists such as Rubens, Van Dijck, Breughel and Van Eyck and musicians such as Lassus, Willaert, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Isaac, Dufay and de Monte. However this is not a pastiche of any historical piece: this is dramatic, vibrant music of the first order. Modern it is, with a whole array of brass clichés that are both exciting and technically extremely difficult. This is one of the best brass band pieces I have heard for a while.
Turning now to the shorter, but equally effective pieces. I loved Simon Dobson’s The Dreaded Groove and Hook. This cool, groovy, up-tempo, acid jazz piece is just what the doctor ordered. It is music that one wishes would go on for ever. Let us hope that we hear much more from this composer. Stephen Hodel’s Vortex is the most ‘modern’ or ‘avant-garde’ sounding piece presented these CDs, yet even here there are some beautiful and quite moving moments of a more traditional nature. If anything, there is a wee bit of an imbalance between the stylistic parameters of this work.
I enjoyed Peter Graham’s Brillante with its nods to British patriotic songs making it a kind of updated brass versions of the ‘sea-songs’. Good euphonium solos here too.
There are a number of arrangements of music which are always interesting from point of view of hearing brass instrumentation applied to works derived from a range of genres. These include Howard Snell’s take on an old Swiss melody ‘The Old Chalet’, a rumbustious version of Karl Jenkins; popular Stabat Mater and a fantasy of Welsh songs written by Gordon Langford and Gareth Woods. This piece certainly swings along with a new twist to some old favourites tunes.
I was not so convinced by the Duo Synthesis who played an arrangement called Gankino Horo and Benediction by John Stevens. This appears to be a marimba/euphonium combo. Although the music sounds good, to my mind this is a long way off being a brass band! Other good arrangements include Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, a medieval sounding piece called Agincourt Song by John Dunstable, and aptly arranged by Elgar Howarth, The Lonely Maid arranged by Thomas Rüedi, the nimble Pas Redouble by Saint-Saëns as arranged by a certain Bach – I think Michael and not J.S. or J.C. ‘Es Burebuebli’ Goes Strange is a fun piece of the traditional ‘oompah’ type of tune arranged by ‘James’: it would make a great encore at any brass band concert.
Finally the double-CD concludes with a good pot-boiler: ‘Hawkins’ arrangement of the ‘Finale’ to William Tell. Certainly a piece to bring the house down.
In spite of the excellent music and fine recordings, this CD gives the listener and the reviewer a number of problems. Firstly there is a lack of dates – for composers and for their music. Both are essential for a good understanding of the music. I do not believe that it should be necessary to spend much time looking for details on the Internet which should be part of the liner-notes or track-listing. Who, for instance are the arrangers ‘Hawkins’ or ‘James’? It would be good to know. Secondly, the designers of the CD package should take note of the fact that the track-listing is in such a tiny font (black on grey/pink) that it is hard for anyone with any kind of sight impairment to read. Over and above this Doyen have overprinted photographs with text. My eyes are not that bad, but I needed a magnifying glass. Finally, after listening to this CD on my ‘hi-fi’ I wanted to import it onto my iPod for further study. However, the details seemed to come up in Japanese! So end of that idea.
All this is a pity, for this is a great compilation of tunes that were given at The Auditorium Stravinski, Montreux. I will not suggest that I enjoyed every single track but on the whole it is an impressive series of performances that explore a huge variety of music. It will be essential listening for all brass band enthusiasts.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published