For a composer whose substantial output numbers
no less than ten symphonies, eight concertos, two operas and a
raft of chamber works, the name of Derek Bourgeois is possibly
more likely to be heard in brass circles than in the mainstream
concert hall. A great shame, but all the more reason to celebrate
the fact that the brass band world has taken his music to heart.
Not that it has always been that easy. When Blitz
quite literally burst upon the scene in 1981 as the test piece
for the finals of the National Championships of that year more
than a few eye brows were raised. Yet looking back over twenty
years it undoubtedly proved to be one of the works that was a
trigger in bringing a wave of new composers and more progressive
music into the brass band scene. Or perhaps more significantly
in some ways, a notable step towards the partial acceptance of
broadly contemporary music in the notoriously insular and reactionary
world of the brass band.
That said Bourgeois is not a composer who could
be tagged as avant-garde. His music is fundamentally tonal albeit
with a degree of chromatic freedom when it suits. Within the self
imposed confines of his language however he is able to pack a
tremendous punch, a language where extreme violence can sit alongside
moments of austere beauty in an uneasy and sometimes disturbing
atmosphere of tension and nervous energy. The composer’s own use
of the word, "demonic" in relation to Apocalypse
can be no coincidence given that two of his other works for brass
band are entitled The Downfall of Lucifer and The Devil
and the Deep Blue Sea. Couple this with the sense of humour
that can also be found in his music (the wonderfully titled Bone
Idyll is a case in point) and one can begin to appreciate
the sheer diversity of his compositional nature.
There may not be much humour to be found in Blitz,
but it perfectly illustrates the former elements of his style
as well as Bourgeois’ skill in coming up with effects that exploit
both the instruments themselves and the technical abilities of
the players. The lightning attack of the opening subsides to a
slow section that commences with a long, chilling flügel
horn solo before the music gradually builds through two huge climaxes
and dies once again to leave us staring, desolately, into the
glowing embers [5:15]. This makes for a hauntingly magical moment
ranking as one of the most memorable in the entire band repertoire.
The second assault is yet to come however and from here forward
Bourgeois takes the listener on a terrifying, white-knuckle ride
of adrenaline-driven intensity, weaving in fast changing passages
that can veer from the maniacal to the scherzo-like. Two of these
themes are eventually heard together before a brief, passing recollection
of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring leads to the
final shattering assault.
Just two years before Bourgeois composed Blitz,
he had been invited to write a work for the farewell concert of
the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. The result, the Concerto Grosso,
was arranged for full brass band two years later whilst Bourgeois
was musical director of the Sun Life Band in Bristol and although
it was broadcast by Sun Life on Radio Three in 1982, it was largely
ignored for some years afterwards. No doubt this was partly due
to its length. At nearly twenty-one minutes it would normally
be considered too long for use as a test piece although the fact
that alongside the earlier two Concertos for Brass Band it was
also deemed virtually unplayable by a number of sources no doubt
also contributed to its neglect. The Yorkshire Building Society
Band certainly prove that point wrong here although it is true
that the work is a technical tour de force of daunting proportions.
As the title implies Bourgeois takes as his model the baroque
concerto grosso, with small groups of players featured against
the rest of the ensemble in ripieno fashion. Although in one continuous
movement the piece falls into three clearly defined sections.
After an opening flourish that presents the motto for much of
the material that follows, the first section takes us straight
into a series of demanding solo cadenzas for euphonium and tuba
before the other sections of the band get in on the action. The
momentum is broken only by a brief sunny interlude part way through.
The central slow movement incorporates elements of jazz, bluesy
material rubbing shoulders with lyrical solos whilst the finale
is, in the composer’s words, a "distorted rumba". Bourgeois’s
trademark irregular rhythms and metres abound, culminating in
a conclusion of huge excitement and energy.
The remaining two works bring us right up to
date, the Sonata for Trombone and Brass Band being an arrangement
of the original trombone and piano version written in 1998 with
Apocalypse being premiered by the Yorkshire Building Society
Band at the European Brass Band Championships in Bergen early
in 2003. Although written twenty-one years after Blitz, Apocalypse
is a conscious attempt by Bourgeois to recreate the sound world
of the earlier work and the music that he was producing at the
time. In terms of the demands on the band, Apocalypse pushes
the players still further and it is the sense of being "on
the edge" that keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout for
both player and listener. Although the music is not strictly programmatic
Bourgeois took a number of words associated with the prophecies
of St. John the Divine, amongst them destruction, pain, attack,
combat and strife, as his musical springboard. As in the Concerto
Grosso there are hints of jazz in the slower sections alongside
what must rank as one of the composer’s most devilish scherzos.
In comparison the Sonata for Trombone and
Brass Band has a more traditional, even nostalgic melodic
feel to it. Cast in four movements the work is a substantial addition
to the trombone repertoire and in true Bourgeois fashion provides
a thorough workout for the soloist and band alike. Trombonist
Ian Bousfield’s background was in the brass bands of Yorkshire
before progressing through the London Symphony Orchestra to his
current chair as principal trombone at the Vienna Philharmonic.
It would be difficult to imagine an artist of greater technical
or lyrical facility and his performance of the four highly contrasting
movements is a joy throughout.
Without question this is a disc that gives us
a band and conductor at the very height of their musical powers.
The virtuosity and sheer technical facility of the playing at
times defies belief. This only tells half of the story however,
for David King is a conductor who is also able to draw playing
of the utmost musicality from his predominantly young band. For
my money few if any conductors in the band world can match him
for both technique and the ability to motivate and inspire his
players in the way that he clearly does.
The music itself deserves to reach far beyond
the confines of the brass band world alone. I very much hope that
the success of this disc will bring about a second volume to include
the equally impressive Concertos 1 and 2, The
Downfall of Lucifer, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
and the contrasting Diversions, a work that shows a very
different side to the composer’s musical personality. In addition,
the considerable number of arrangements and lighter pieces that
Bourgeois has contributed to the repertoire would easily fill
a third disc in their own right.