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Bramwell TOVEY (b. 1953)
Coventry Variations (1986) [13:18]
Pictures in the Smoke (2006) [15:33]
Toccata from The Bardfield Ayre (1978) [1:35]
The Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret (2006) [12:37]
St. Norbert Chorale (1997) [3:22]
Nine Daies Wonder (2007) [17:37]
Joseph Alessi (trombone); Mark Fewer (violin)
Foden's Band/Bramwell Tovey
rec. 17 April 2006, Ince Hall, Wigan; 29 November 2008, 1 February 2009, Peel Hall, Salford University. DDD
EGON SFZ 136 [64:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Bramwell Tovey is one of a very rare breed amongst composers and conductors in the brass band world: musicians with a background steeped in brass bands that have gone on to make a serious impression on the worldwide musical stage. The other obvious example is Elgar Howarth, although on the evidence of his present position as Music Director with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, it could be argued that Tovey's achievements in the field of conducting have now somewhat overshadowed those of Grimethorpe Colliery Band's former inspirational mentor.

In Tovey's case it was Salvationist brass banding that spawned his early musical roots, his father being a renowned euphonium player in the Salvation Army's crack outfit, The International Staff Band, as well as enjoying a close involvement with Ilford Citadel Band. Study at the Royal Academy and University of London followed his early musical experiences, before he embarked on a conducting career that has seen him work with orchestras that include the London Philharmonic, London Symphony and Bournemouth Symphony.

Latterly however, it is North America that has figured prominently in his conducting life, his tenure with the Vancouver Symphony having been preceded by a twelve year period with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and guest appearances with many of the leading orchestras in the USA including the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics.

Yet throughout these years brass bands have always been a continual factor in his musical life, initially with the Kettering-based GUS Band in the 1980s and subsequently with Foden's and the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. The latter has benefited from his artistic direction since 2006, when Tovey took over the mantle from Elgar Howarth.

At Foden's, Tovey has forged a close working relationship with Resident Conductor Garry Cutt, a partnership that has seen the band enjoy continuing success on both concert and contest platforms in recent years. Anyone present when the band performed at the Festival of Brass in Manchester earlier this year will recall their scintillating performance of Nine Daies Wonder. It was recorded for this disc the following day and scored for the distinctly unusual combination of violin and brass band. As unusual as it might be however, Tovey's ever-pioneering musical spirit clearly thrived on the challenge. Canadian violinist Mark Fewer, as comfortable as a raconteur as he is with a violin and a close friend of Tovey, provided part of the inspiration. For the remainder Tovey turned to the story of Will Kemp, the close friend of Shakespeare and fellow shareholder in the Globe Theatre who danced his way from the composer's home town of London to Norwich in 1599.

The music is as colourful as the character of Kemp himself, brilliantly scored instrumentally but also in its careful attention to balance, ensuring that the violin never disappears behind a wall of brass sound. Tovey weaves into the piece several quotes from Shakespeare, utilising Mark Fewer's abilities as a raconteur to the full whilst also giving the music a form of narrative structure at the same time. As with much of Tovey's music the style is one of eclecticism, but it's quirky in the most positive sense of the word, highly imaginative and above all original in its concept. Foden's are on brilliant form and with Mark Fewer's natural abilities as speaker and entertainer to the fore, it is hard to imagine a more spirited, not to mention virtuosic performance.

Many of the same comments in terms of originality and imagination can also be applied to Pictures in the Smoke and Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret. In the former the solo role is taken by the piano and presumably played in this recording by Tovey himself - although the sleeve does not tell us so. A response to Dorothy Parker's witty poem about dating and love, the music moves through a series of contrasting episodes that capture the changing moods of the poem in often amusing fashion, with piano ostinatos bordering on quasi-minimalism, jazz, echoes of Kurt Weill, the Hans Werner Henze of Ragtimes and Habaneras and a passage that sounds as if it has been lifted from the theme tune of the television series Jeeves and Wooster along the way. It's all pulled off with both panache and style. Once again the band is on top form with Tovey amply demonstrating that he is no mean pianist. Joseph Alessi, principal trombone with the New York Philharmonic, is the enthralling soloist in Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret. Jazz elements once again fuse in an eclectic mix, although ultimately it is Alessi that steals the show with trombone playing of staggering facility.

Coventry Variations is one of the earliest pieces on the disc and demonstrates a somewhat different side to Tovey's personality. Far more conventional in its test-piece-friendly format, the work is a set of continuous, multi-faceted variations on the Coventry Carol, skilfully woven into a tribute to and portrait of the city that bears its name. In a semi-narrative form, the work takes Coventry's devastation in World War II as its fulcrum, moving through appropriately wide ranging emotions before the music emerges triumphantly as the new Cathedral rises from the ashes of the old. The work proved a popular choice when it was elected as the test-piece for the Regional Qualifying rounds of the National Brass Band Championships at First Section level some years ago and Foden's performance is once again exemplary in its execution.

The Toccata from The Bardfield Ayre and the St. Norbert Chorale are both miniatures but of the two, the Chorale in particular makes a strong impression in its atmospheric yet powerful portrait of the ruins of an old monastery encountered by Tovey in Winnipeg.

It's a shame that the production team did not pick up on the fact that there are sections of the otherwise useful liner notes - the reproduction of the Dorothy Parker poem that inspired Pictures in the Smoke being one example - that are almost totally illegible as a result of the dark background, whilst the fact that the recordings were made over a period of two years is clearly noticeable. Minor gripes aside however, this is a rewarding exploration of Tovey's brass band music. His deservedly revered status in the brass band world makes him a hugely important presence, both as conductor, composer and overall figurehead. With performances as committed as these from the band that has become synonymous with his name, it is clear that Tovey is a man that the brass band movement as a whole needs to hang onto.

Christopher Thomas 



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