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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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World of Brass

A Golden Year
Peter GRAHAM (b. 1952)
Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2005) [14.54]
Johan de MEIJ (b. 1953)
Extreme Make-over (2005) [15.54]
Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
Northern Lights (2005) [13.16]
Bramwell TOVEY (b. 1953)
The Night to Sing (2005) [16.50]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Eden (2005) [14.46]
Black Dyke Band/Nicholas J. Childs
rec. Morley Town Hall, May, October 2005 (Graham, de Meij, Wilby, Pickard); live recording of winning performance British Open 2005, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (Tovey). DDD
DOYEN DOYCD205 [75:45]

2005 was a golden year for the Black Dyke Band in more ways them one. Originally founded as a brass and reed band by Peter Wharton in 1816, it was in 1855 that the band were taken under the wing of the local mill owner and French Horn player in the band John Foster. He provided the band with a new set of instruments and uniforms as well as a room in which to rehearse. So was born the Black Dyke Mills Band and an association with John Foster and Sons that was to become as synonymous with the band as its home Yorkshire village of Queensbury, which to this day remains its base.
 
The year of the band’s 150th Anniversary could hardly have been allowed to pass without lavish celebration and 2005 saw a plethora of recordings and concerts. The highlight was the official 150th Anniversary concert in Manchester, which saw the band play to a sold-out Bridgewater Hall.
 
On the contest stage things got off to an apt start when the band won the European Brass Band Championships in April 2005 for the first time in ten years. Subsequently they added the title of British Open Champions at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in September. Few would have bet against the band securing the coveted “treble” by winning the National Brass Band Championships Final at the Royal Albert Hall in October. There the test piece was John Pickard’s challenging Eden. Ultimately however it was a controversial result that saw them take the runner-up spot and lose out on the title to Lancashire rivals Leyland.
 
This CD charts Black Dyke’s contesting year, beginning with the two works by Peter Graham and Johan de Meij that gave them the European title. The European format of a set test piece coupled with an “own choice” work has been a feature of the contest since its inception in the 1970s. Latterly the leading bands have jostled to play the latest works from the pens of the movement’s leading composers. Black Dyke took this to the ultimate level in commissioning Peter Graham to write his Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the band’s performance on the contest stage being the work’s world premiere.
 
Peter Graham is often compared to the great Eric Ball, the man who for many years was the leading brass band composer. Like Ball, Graham’s roots are in the Salvation Army although the comparison is more accurately reflected in his reliance on melody in its most accessible form. His music is attractive whilst technically challenging and it is principally for this reason that the band world has taken him to its heart.
 
Graham constructs his piece around several chronological scenes from Jules Verne’s book which was written just nine years after John Foster adopted the Black Dyke Mills Band. It starts with Professor Otto Lidenbrook and his nephew Axel on the Summit of Snæfells, followed by the subsequent Descent into the crater and the many adventures they encounter en route. It is not difficult to understand why it met with such an ecstatic reception at the contest. True, it was aided by an electrifying performance from Black Dyke but the classic test-piece blend of emotional drama provided by the central section reflecting Axel’s despair as he is Lost in the Labyrinth, allied with the sheer excitement of scenes such as the Battle of the Antediluvian Creatures proved a potent combination. The actual live performance from the European Championships is well worth hearing on the Doyen two CD set covering the highlights of the contest. That said, this subsequent studio recording is recorded in a tauter acoustic and loses little of the excitement and adrenalin of the day.
 
In contrast to the fundamentally traditional elements of the Graham, the set test-piece for the European contest, Dutchman Johan de Meij’s Extreme Make-over, initially proved a controversial choice. The controversy centred not around the music itself, which is based around the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, but its use of ten tuned bottles played by the cornet section around two-thirds of the way through the work. Such tampering with the “sacred” rigid instrumentation of the contesting brass band was always guaranteed to raise eyebrows although the piece gained many admirers following its round of performances at the contest.
 
It opens with the Tchaikovsky melody heard in its original form played by a quartet of two cornets, tenor horn and euphonium. The theme passes through a series of metamorphoses and stylistic transformations that take in whiffs of minimalism alongside neo-classicism and medieval techniques. The latter manifests itself in the “hocketing” of the tuned bottles. Various other fleeting fragments of Tchaikovsky works - not to mention Stravinsky - are woven in along the way but de Meij never resorts to mere pastiche or tacky imitation. Despite its apparent allusion to reality television, Extreme Make-over is an apt title for a work that packs a great deal of punch. It is difficult to imagine it receiving more sterling advocacy than that given here by Black Dyke. An unexpected hit it may have been but it’s a piece that has the potential to retain its popularity for a long time.
 
As a conductor Bramwell Tovey has been involved with brass bands on a sporadic basis for a good number of years. With the exception of his Coventry Variations, which was utilised as a test piece for the Area Championships in 2004, he is a relative newcomer to bands as a composer. The Night to Sing is consequently Tovey’s first foray into writing for bands at the highest level and it is unsurprising therefore that its choice as the test piece for the 2005 British Open Championships prompted a good deal of interest.
 
Tovey’s inspiration is drawn from the 1945 VE Day celebrations and in particular a quote from an unknown woman in Chelsea on 8 May 1945, “this was the night to sing”. The music sets out to reflect the turbulent emotions of the VE Day celebrations both in terms of the joy of the celebrations themselves and the deeper emotions and sense of grief that many would have felt at the same time. The language is broadly traditional: indeed there are points when the music is considerably closer to Eric Ball than Peter Graham ever gets in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Yet there is also the sense of a deeply personal response to the subject matter from Tovey and as such, fine piece though it undoubtedly is, it is not easy to see it finding a regular place in the repertoire. Dyke’s performance on the day of the contest was one of only a small number that truly got inside the music. Whilst there are the occasional clips and lapses of ensemble that are evident on this live recording, they do not detract from a performance of real depth and musical substance.
 
John Pickard prefaces his score of Eden with a quote from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. The concept of the piece combines modern day environmental concerns with Adam and Eve’s journey into the outside world following their expulsion from paradise. Pickard had just completed his epic Gaia Symphony for brass band prior to writing Eden. Credit has to be paid to the organisers of the National Brass Band Championships for taking the unusually bold step of commissioning a composer whose name would have been relatively new to many of the competing bands.
 
The decision proved to be a fine one in that Eden was well received by bands and audience alike whilst showing itself to be a work of genuine dramatic and emotional power. Cast in three linked sections, the first sets an atmosphere of calm with Adam and Eve represented by euphonium and cornet respectively. The tranquillity is short-lived however as the serpent guarding the Tree of Knowledge challenges Adam with a wonderfully manic jazz-inspired trombone solo. In the violent second section it is human-induced chaos that comes to the fore as the music dwells on the destruction that mankind continues to cause to the planet. Eventually the anger subsides to a mood of despair before a sense of renewed optimism leads into a conclusion of slowly increasing radiance. The composer cites a visit to the Eden Project in St Austell as the inspiration for this last section.
 
As is so characteristic of Black Dyke under the intelligent direction of Nicholas Childs, their recording demonstrates a sense of complete ease with the music. Here are a band and conductor that know instinctively what needs to be brought out of the score, both emotionally and technically. It makes for a riveting listen.
 
Philip Wilby’s Northern Lights could be seen as the odd-piece-out in that it is the only work on the CD not to have been used as a test thus far. It was commissioned by Black Dyke as part of their anniversary celebrations and was conceived as an interactive project involving both musicians and dancers. As a Yorkshireman Wilby knows his roots. The musical material is based on the hymn tune Deep Harmony which eventually emerges through the texture towards the end of the work. Particularly moving in this recording is the fact that the engineers have grafted in a recording of Deep Harmony by the Black Dyke Band of sixty years ago. It’s a special touch that lends a real sense of history to the proceedings.
 
The Black Dyke Band are certainly the most successful as well as the most famous brass band of them all and to have retained their stature for 150 years against a backdrop of social change that has eaten away at the very core of their existence is a quite remarkable achievement. This recording is the proof that they are still at the very top of their game.
 
Christopher Thomas
 

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World of Brass

 

 



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