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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b. 1923)

Three Impressions for Brass Op. 36
Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms Op. 87
Sinfonia Concertante Op. 111 *
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Trans. Butterworth

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op. 24
Robert Blackburn (baritone); Lesley Howie (tenor horn) *
Black Dyke Band/Nicholas J. Childs
Recorded Morley Town Hall, 2001 DDD
DOYEN DOYCD130 [61:13]
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Arthur Butterworth grew up with brass bands. As a child in Manchester he learnt to play the cornet, going on to play for the Besses O’The Barn Band before pursuing a career for a good number years as a professional trumpet player, initially in the Scottish National Orchestra but later in the Hallé under Barbirolli. As a conductor also, Butterworth has worked extensively with the National Youth Brass Band.

Yet despite this, a glance at his list of works shows that the number of major pieces for band (there are also a handful of smaller works including the well known Path Across the Moors, arranged for band from the orchestral original) can be more or less counted on the fingers of one hand, this from a composer who has maintained an exceptionally steady output over the years. The reason for this could be seen as his determination not to be typecast as a brass band composer although having discussed the point with the composer, I have little doubt that it is also borne of frustration with the musically inward nature of the band movement as a whole, an issue on which Butterworth has been particularly vocal and indeed outspoken over the years, resulting in a certain amount of controversy.

Sadly the work that for me is Butterworth’s finest for band and also sums up much about the composer and his music, Odin, From the Land of Fire and Ice, is not included on this disc although along with Caliban, A Dales Suite, Paean and Path Across the Moors, there is enough music for a second volume which I very much hope that Doyen will record in due course.

In the meantime this fine disc gives us one of Butterworth’s most popular works in the Three Impressions for Brass, along with one of his most recent in the Sinfonia Concertante of 2001. I have recently spoken here about the Passacaglia on a Theme of Brahms whilst reviewing another Doyen disc, ‘Regionals 2003’, which included this same performance as part of a showcase of the test pieces for the 2003 regional qualifying contests of the National Brass Band Championships. Taking the famous passacaglia from the final movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in E Minor, Butterworth creates a deeply felt and highly personal response to Brahms’s eight-bar phrase, yet rarely leaves us in any doubt as to who the composer is (try from around 2:25, it is archetypal Butterworth). As I mentioned in my earlier review the skill of the scoring is striking, a feature that is central to what in many ways is the odd piece out on the disc, a transcription of Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel, which in turn was suggested by an orchestration of the original carried out by Edmund Rubbra and which Butterworth conducted in the early 1970s. The brass band repertoire is of course littered with arrangements of the classics, many of them very successful and having been used as test pieces over the years. At twenty-one minutes this arrangement is not likely to be used as a test piece in this form due to its length (Butterworth already cut variations fifteen to eighteen and a passage from the fugue to make it more practical for bands to perform in respect of duration). Again as a consequence of its length it is also likely to be a rarity in the concert hall, a shame, for this is a marvellously inventive arrangement in which Butterworth skilfully exploits the band to create genuine contrasts of light, shade and textural interest. It is also no mean feat to perform from a technical point of view but with individual players as talented as those in the Black Dyke Band this is hardly a concern, as is amply demonstrated here.

In his biographical booklet note on Butterworth, Paul Conway accurately describes the Sinfonia Concertante as a nostalgic work and indeed there is a feeling that the composer is consciously looking back over his shoulder to his roots in Vaughan Williams, tinged with the Nordic in Sibelius and the Celtic in Bax. A Concertante work on this scale, using two of the most under-exploited instruments in the band, the tenor horn and baritone, is a rarity indeed but it proves an inspired choice, for the composer manages not only to bring the more predictable, mellow and lyrical nature of their sound through the textures but also gives them a vehicle for virtuoso showmanship, as can be heard in the central scherzo and closing bars of the Rondo Alla Caccia finale. Again it is testament to Butterworth’s skill in scoring that the easily obscured sounds of these instruments are never lost in the overall textures, such is the care he takes in the transparency of the writing, resulting in a work of haunting beauty in the slower music, combined with a striding open air spirit so accurately capturing the composer’s beloved Yorkshire Dales in the Scherzo and Rondo.

It is the north of England that provided the inspiration for the Three Impressions for Brass, sub-titled Scenes from Nineteenth-Century Northumberland and comprising three pictures of Wylam Colliery (1836), Deserted Farm (1840) and The Royal Border Bridge, Berwick-on- Tweed (1850). This has remained one of the composer’s most successful works although as is often the case it is not necessarily Butterworth at his finest. It is easy to see however why the pictorial associations and the last movement in particular captures the imagination, an uncannily vivid portrait of the rhythmic energy and power of steam locomotives toiling through the years, "of flame, smoke, heat and cold in the clear, dark northern skies". It is those clear, dark northern skies that memorably imbue so much of Arthur Butterworth’s music but as he once said to me, he has always been more attracted to cold climates than the Mediterranean!

Recorded in the presence of the composer, Butterworth comments in his booklet note that although he often likes to conducts his own music, he values the wider perspective that can be achieved by a conductor taking his own objective view of the music. How these interpretations would have differed in the hands of the composer we can only speculate about, but given that the composer did have input during the recording these performances can safely be viewed as definitive. It is difficult to find fault with the playing of the Black Dyke Band who are on exceptional form, the soloists Lesley Howie and Robert Blackburn in the Sinfonia Concertante being worthy of particular praise. Aided by a truthful and realistic recording from Doyen this is a disc that I can thoroughly recommend to both band enthusiasts and those with an interest in English music generally.

Christopher Thomas

Arthur Butterworth website

Arthur Butterworth Speaks ( a regular column)


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