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The National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain 2006 - Five Winning Performances
Hector BERLIOZ (arr. Wright)
Les Francs Juges [12:07]
Grimethorpe Colliery (UK Coal Band)/Allan Withington
Gustav HOLST (arr. Parkes)
Ballet from The Perfect Fool [10:50]
Kibworth Band/John Berryman
Alan FERNIE
Gothic Dances [12:13]
St Dennis Band/Brian Minear
Gordon LANGFORD
Sinfonietta for Brass Band [10:04]
Long Eaton Silver Band/Sharon Stansfield
Philip SPARKE
Valerius Variations [9:07]
Dodworth Colliery M.W. Band/Eliot Darwin
rec. Harrogate International Centre, 2006 except Les Francs Juges, recorded Royal Albert Hall, London, October 2006
DOYEN MASTER SERIES DOY CD219 [54:43]

It has been the case for many years that the winning, live performance from the National Championship Final at the Royal Albert Hall has been released on CD. Traditionally, the remainder of the CD has been taken up with highlights of the Championship Gala Concert, yet the sad demise of this latter event has no doubt forced a rethink.

In many ways it is surprising that this new concept has not been thought of before. The winning performances from down the sections are just as valid and worthy of being heard as the elite Championship Section winner, whilst also giving an interesting opportunity to hear the best bands in the country at all levels of ability. Gathering them together on one CD makes perfect sense and a welcome change to what had become the somewhat hackneyed and predictable pattern of the old format.

Grimethorpe Colliery (UK Coal) Band last enjoyed the taste of success at the National Championships in 1992 and in many people’s eyes were well overdue for another victory. That 1992 triumph became the stuff of legend, played out in front of TV cameras that trailed the band in the wake of the announcement, just a few days before the contest, that the pit in Grimethorpe was to close with the loss of the large majority of the players’ jobs. It was a story that was later to become the basis for the successful film Brassed Off.

In 1992 it was Philip Wilby’s The New Jerusalem that tested the bands, a fine piece that somewhat ironically has been little heard since. The choice of test piece in 2006 was controversial for paradoxical reasons; not as has often been the case in the past for undue modernism. This time controversy centred on the choice of a Berlioz overture in Les Francs Juges - not widely considered to be amongst the composer’s best. It is rendered here in an ageing arrangement by Frank Wright that displays no shortage of inadequacies.

On the day, Grimethorpe’s performance was not the “cleanest” of the front runners with runners up and local rivals Black Dyke, giving a very different reading that was more overtly orchestral in conception and despatched with immaculate precision. Spend just a few minutes with Grimethorpe’s performance as preserved here and it soon becomes obvious that this was a band on fire; it’s a performance that blazes with an inner intensity from start to finish due in no small part to the inspired direction of Allan Withington. Blemish free it is not but it sure does get up an impressive head of steam and it’s an excitement that communicates itself readily in this recording.

Gustav Holst was not only a master orchestrator but also a useful trombonist, a fact given away by the call to attention from the trombones at the beginning of his Ballet from The Perfect Fool. Perhaps as a result of Holst’s skill in orchestral scoring and colouring with the idiosyncrasies of the instruments in mind, the arrangement by Peter Parkes that tested the First Section bands at Harrogate does not always sit comfortably for band. It suffers from the lack of tonal contrast of purely brass as opposed to orchestra. The First Section champions, Leicestershire-based Kibworth under the experienced direction of John Berryman, did however give a convincing reading that succeeded in negotiating the many dovetailing semi-quaver runs of the outer movements and created atmosphere in the central movement if not always entirely settled in tuning. In short, an impressive performance of an arrangement that is not easy to pull off convincingly.

With arrangements of orchestral works testing the Championship and First Section bands, the competitors in the lower three sections were given original works by composers who know their brass. Scotsman Alan Fernie has made something of a speciality of writing test pieces for lower section bands. His knowledge of bands stems from his first hand experience as a player. His music is always intelligently conceived for its purpose whilst being tuneful and enjoyable for both band and listener. Gothic Dances, the Second Section test piece, is cast in three movements and as the title implies, places music with a suitably middle ages feel into a modern context. The winners, St. Dennis give a cracking performance of real energy whilst demonstrating impressive accuracy of ensemble in the outer movements particularly.

The opening movement of Gordon Langford’s Sinfonietta for Brass Band became well known through its use for some years as the theme tune for the BBC2 series Best of Brass - how long ago it seems since bands had television airtime. It is quintessential Langford both in terms of its attractive melodious lines and colourful and skilful scoring. Once again it was a Midland band that carried off the Third Section title in the shape of the Long Eaton Silver Prize Band under Sharon Stansfield, demonstrating playing of confidence and warmth from a band that features a good number of youngsters amongst its ranks.

Philip Sparke’s Valerius Variations were a stern test for the bands of the Fourth Section, with a quiet atmospheric opening soon giving way to plenty of challenges on a more technical level. Whilst Sparke writes test pieces at the highest competitive level, like Alan Fernie, he knows how to engage bands of more modest ability with music that is enjoyable to both rehearse and play. This comes through well in Dodworth Colliery’s enthusiastic performance, featuring some fine individual playing from a number of band members as well as good ensemble work from all sections. If any performance here proves that there is still quality in depth to be found in the band movement then this is it.

As a new concept then this is an idea that could well become a regular feature of the brass band recording calendar. Don’t expect studio quality recordings; the somewhat brittle acoustic of the Harrogate Centre coupled with the well known shortfalls of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic do not make for the finest results but as a historical record of the winning performances down the sections, this could well become a very useful ongoing project as well as a great memento of a special day for the bands involved and their supporters.

Christopher Thomas


 


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