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British Tuba Concertos
Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)
Tuba Concerto (1978) [18:52]
Roger STEPTOE (b. 1953)
Tuba Concerto (1983) [14:49]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Tuba Concerto in F minor (1954) [12:54]
John GOLLAND (1946-1993)
Tuba Concerto Op. 46 (1980s) [17:41]
James Gourlay (tuba)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
rec. 2004, Phoenix Sound, Wembley. DDD
NAXOS 8.557754 [64:15]

The tuba is an instrument that has had precious few champions over the years. Unlike the trumpet and trombone, the repertoires of which have been expanded beyond all recognition by Håkan Hardenberger and Christian Lindberg in particular, the tuba has never achieved the same degree of attention in the serious music world. The notable exception is the late and sadly missed John Fletcher, whose years with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble did more for the reputation of the instrument than anyone before or, arguably, since. To this day he remains the player’s player of choice.

Like so many of our top British brass players James Gourlay’s roots lie in the brass band movement. Although his positions as a player have included spells with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Zurich Opera he has returned to his brass band roots in recent years as a conductor, working with a number of top bands including Brighouse and Rastrick. He also holds the position of Head of Brass and Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester; a busy man indeed.

Gourlay’s commitment to new music for his instrument has been fruitful with Judith Bingham, Harrison Birtwistle and Penderecki amongst the composers whose work he has promoted. Given his position as Principal of the Royal Northern College, Edward Gregson is a composer whose work Gourlay must know well. His Tuba Concerto of 1978 was originally written with brass band accompaniment before he later revised and orchestrated it for John Fletcher. By the time Gregson wrote the concerto at the age of thirty-four he already possessed a serious reputation in the field of music for brass and wind and it is clear that he writes for the instrument with both confidence and authority. As with all of Gregson’s music the Tuba Concerto is highly approachable in its strongly melodic and rhythmic content, whilst thoughtfully exploiting the lesser known diversities of the instrument in all three movements. It is in the Lento e mesto slow movement however where this is at its most telling. Opening and closing with a slow string chorale that recalls William Mathias, the soloist’s slowly emerging, singing melodic line exploits a little known side to the nature of the instrument whilst sounding never less than idiomatic. Gourlay’s playing is equally atmospheric and it makes for compelling listening. In contrast the often jazzy Allegro giocoso that concludes the work brings Malcolm Arnold to mind and includes a substantial cadenza before the first movement is recalled and the work closes amid infectious high spirits.

Gourlay himself had a hand in Roger Steptoe’s Concerto of 1983, the music originally existing in a version for tuba and piano before Gourlay asked the composer to expand the work into a full-scale concerto. Steptoe’s is a more austere soundworld than Gregson’s, the music utilising twelve tone technique yet with a strongly lyrical accent. Consequently and somewhat unusually given the stereotypical image of the instrument, Steptoe chooses to place his quick movement centrally framed by two predominantly slow outer movements the first of which increases in tempo to a lively allegro that calls for great dexterity from the soloist. Much of the lyrical material is placed in the highest range of the instrument, a range that is rarely heard in its conventional orchestral role but which is highly effective when in the safe hands of a player of Gourlay’s ability. The nimble articulation called for in the central Giocoso is despatched with equal, at times amazing, aplomb.

The F Minor Concerto of Vaughan Williams is without doubt the grand daddy of all tuba concertos. The work is a product of the composer’s incredible Indian summer of creativity and a true indication of both an enquiring mind and a delight in all things musically unusual. Although traditional in its construction - like the Concerto Accademico for violin and strings it owes a good deal to Bach at a formal level - the writing for the tuba is wonderfully original not to mention technically testing. There are two notable performances of the work already available, the first of which is by the team that gave the first performance, Philip Catelinet and the London Symphony Orchestra. Catelinet’s smaller bore tuba does not allow him the range of tone that the modern instrument affords although John Fletcher’s later recording is typical of his inimitable artistry. Gourlay is certainly up to the task however and the outer movements in particular show him at his very best.

John Golland is the least familiar of the composer’s represented due partly to the fact that much of his music was written for the brass band, where even then it is rarely heard. Golland’s premature death in 1993 meant that he never heard his Tuba Concerto, the first performance not being given until 1997 when Andy Duncan, the then tuba player with the Hallé and another who is actively involved in the brass band scene, premiered the work in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. In spirit and style the work is closest to that of the Gregson being cast in three traditionally shaped movements. Whilst the faster movements possibly lack the melodic strength and invention of the Gregson the slow movement is certainly very effective and Gourlay makes a strong case for a work that was undeserving of its long wait for a first performance.

This may be one of the more unusual discs that you purchase this year but it is one which is highly recommended and well worth hunting out. Both music and soloist offer much to enjoy and it certainly succeeds in proving that there is far more to the tuba than “Tubby”.

Christopher Thomas

 




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