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Derek BOURGEOIS (b.1941)
Apocalypse Op. 187 (2003)
Sonata for Trombone and Brass Band Op. 156B (1998)
Blitz Op. 65 (1981)
Concerto Grosso for Brass Band Op. 61A (1983)
Ian Bousfield (trombone)
Yorkshire Building Society Band/Dr. David King
Rec. Peer Hall, University of Salford, 14th-16th March 2003 DDD
EGON SFZ113 [69:45]

 

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.

Christopher Thomas

 



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