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New Music for Brass Band
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1935) (ed. Hindmarsh)
Flowers of the Forest: Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song (1989) [14:25]
Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968)
The Alchymist’s Journal (2001) [12:25]
George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Altitude (1977) [8:35]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Prague (1995) [12:45]
Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
Shadow Songs (1992) [9:59]
Michael BALL, Edward GREGSON, Elgar HOWARTH, Bramwell TOVEY, Philip WILBY
Variations on a Theme by Tippett (2004) [14:45]
Foden’s Richardson Band/Bramwell Tovey
rec. 3-5 May 2008, King’s School, Macclesfield. DDD
NMC D142 [72:54] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


Although there are several successful and highly productive specialist brass band CD labels, releases of band discs on mainstream classical labels have been relatively rare animals in recent years. One possible exception that could be cited is Chandos, which for some time enjoyed a close relationship with amongst others, the Black Dyke Band. Sadly the Chandos commitment to bands has waned of late, although more recently “Dyke” has ventured into classical territory once again with the release of “Symphonic Brass” on Naxos, a disc of weighty classical arrangements that appears to have been something of a success story from a sales point of view. 

Discs dedicated wholly to contemporary music have been rarer still, although one early precedent was set way back in 1976, with the release of “Grimethorpe Special” on Decca Headline. Masterminded by Elgar Howarth and containing such daring content as Harrison Birtwistle’s Grimethorpe Aria, Ragtimes and Habaneras by Hans Werner Henze and Howarth’s own scoring of Takemitsu’s Garden Rain originally written for orchestral brass, the brass band world reeled under the shock of music that was largely considered to have no place in what was and in many ways still is, an insular and inward looking movement. 

Unfortunately, thirty two years on from Grimethorpe Special, new music that takes many in banding outside of the confines of their comfort zones still has a tendency to stir negative reactions; one reason why a small number of much needed protagonists, Elgar Howarth amongst them, continue to promote the work of a gratifyingly growing number of contemporary and young composers that have added to the brass band repertoire in recent years. 

One such protagonist and the man behind this new CD by the Foden’s Richardson Band is producer, conductor, arranger and all round brass band enthusiast Paul Hindmarsh. For many years now he has been closely involved in the annual Festival of Brass held at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, a three day January extravaganza of top class bands, playing a diverse and often daring range of repertoire skilfully woven into what are invariably highly  absorbing programmes. 

Repertoire is one of Hindmarsh’s abiding enthusiasms and he has had a significant part to play in most of the music on this disc, whether it be in the form of commissioner, arranger or editor. 

In the case of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Flowers of the Forest: Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song, it is his editing skills that have been employed, the scoring being subtly altered to suit the standard twenty five piece brass band rather than the larger forces of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, for whom the work was written. In common with George Benjamin’s Altitude, Flowers of the Forest is Richard Rodney Bennett’s only work for brass band and again in common with the Benjamin, the work is not quite as “new” as the title of the disc might imply, dating to 1989 (remarkably Altitude was written over thirty years ago when Benjamin was just seventeen). 

Despite Rodney Bennett’s stature as a composer, Flowers of the Forest remains little known even to those in the brass band world, yet here proves itself to be a gem that justly deserves to be drawn to wider attention. The folk song in question is believed to date to 1513 and is contemporary with the Battle of Flodden, the carnage of the battle field being reflected in the central variants of the piece before the music subsides to a touching close in an atmosphere of reflective mourning accompanied by distant echoes of the melody. 

Kenneth Hesketh has now written a significant body of work for brass and wind band and is a composer whose versatility of expression can sometimes belie the fact that his “natural” language is very much at the cutting edge of contemporary music. His works for band however often demonstrate a more conventionally melodic side to his nature, The Alchymist’s Journal comprising a set of brilliantly scored continuous variations, each developed from the same six note motif and drawing inspiration from the book by American author Evan S. Connell. The Alchymist’s Journal is one of two works on the disc (along with Judith Bingham’s Prague) that have been recorded before, although in the case of the Hesketh this richly detailed new recording easily eclipses the former by the Leyland Band and released by Faber Music in 2003. Hesketh’s is a dynamic and exciting musical voice that deserves greater attention within the brass band world; to hear him write for band in his first language would be an intriguing prospect indeed. 

The fact that Altitude is George Benjamin’s first published work bears testament to his early reputation as a teenage prodigy. Studies with Olivier Messiaen meant that he was already making a name for himself when Elgar Howarth asked him to write a piece for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Although now only two years away from the milestone of his fiftieth birthday, Benjamin’s output remains modest by many standards, the result of his fastidious attention to detail and innate sense of craftsmanship. Despite its early chronology Altitude exhibits much that is characteristic in Benjamin’s music. In particular his obsession with clarity of texture and detail is finely played out here in Bramwell Tovey’s perceptive reading, allied with playing of atmospheric spaciousness from the Foden’s Richardson Band, impressively capturing the feeling of flight at high altitude that the composer intended.  Remarkably and despite having been broadcast numerous times on Radio Three, this is the work’s first release on CD. 

Commissioned by the BBC for the Manchester Festival of Brass in 1995, Judith Bingham’s Prague caused something of a stir when it was chosen as the test piece for the regional qualifying rounds of the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain in 2003. Whilst having its supporters, many reactionaries within the banding movement were quick to denounce it on the grounds of its alleged unnecessary modernism, a wholly unfounded response to a gritty, powerful work of rich musical imagination. The work’s four sections draw their inspiration from Prague’s often turbulent past, invoking images of the Golem, the clay creature created in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Loew as well as the familiar settings of Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square. As with the Hesketh work, Foden’s recording clearly surpasses its predecessor (The Fairey Band under James Gourlay Doyen CD143) with a display of at times stunning virtuosity including magnificent playing from the upper end of the band in particular. 

Philip Wilby has established himself as one of the most important contributors to the brass band repertoire in recent years. Shadow Songs however, remains one of his lesser known works, its introspective character being in considerable contrast to the technical exuberance of his band works conceived for the contest stage. Commissioned by Paul Hindmarsh during his period as conductor of the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band for performance at the Lichfield Festival, Shadow Songs (or “Elegiac Fragment” as the composer also describes it) is unusual for its almost wholly muted accompaniment, against which Wilby places substantial solo passages for baritone, trombone, soprano cornet and to close, a distant offstage cornet. The baritone solo, beautifully played by Natsumi Inaba, is a moving tribute to a former solo baritone player with the Foden’s Band David Blunsden who died tragically in 1990 whilst the work as a whole is dedicated to the doyen of the brass band movement, the late Harry Mortimer. 

There are numerous examples of collaborative works in the classical world, but Paul Hindmarsh’s idea to commission several of the brass band world’s most influential composers to contribute a variation to collectively form part of a centenary tribute to Michael Tippett in 2005 was a new concept to the brass band audience. In Bramwell Tovey, Edward Gregson, Michael Ball, Elgar Howarth and Philip Wilby, the choice of composers was an inspired one, whilst the theme of the Processional from A Midsummer Marriage (also used by Tippett in the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles) provided a melodic basis for the work far removed from the style of Tippett’s one and only contribution to the brass band repertoire, Festal Brass with Blues. 

It is notable that in every case the individual personalities of the composers appear through the variants, with Gregson and Howarth in particular providing contributions that very clearly demonstrate their own music fingerprint. Most impressive though is the magnificent Birthday Fugue and Finale that Philip Wilby provides as the conclusion to the work, once again played with great panache and technical assurance by Foden’s and Bramwell Tovey. 

Bramwell Tovey’s charismatic direction clearly plays a vital part throughout this recording and it is difficult to imagine these works receiving more dedicated, exciting advocacy than they do here. Foden’s Richardson are in tremendous form, borne out by the fact that as this review was being written they were successful in capturing the title of British Open Champions 2008 (conducted on that occasion by Garry Cutt) with a scintillating performance of the test piece, Edward Gregson’s Rococo Variations. 

Both NMC and Paul Hindmarsh are to be congratulated on their enterprise in bringing this project to fruition and as such this is a disc that deserves to achieve every success, both within the brass band world itself and in the wider musical world.

Christopher Thomas





 


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