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Devil's Duel
Devil's Duel (2006) [8.11]
Requiem Paraphrases (2006) [9.26]
Benediction [3.28]
Frédéric CHOPIN (arr. Alan Fernie)
So Deep is the Night [3.20]
Johann Sebastian BACH (arr. Peter Meechan and David Thornton)
Sonata in C Major BWV1033 [5:51]
Joy WEBB (arr. Richard Phillips)
There Will Be God [4.47]
Philip WILBY
Concerto for Euphonium (1995) [14:46]
My Mountain Top [8.33]*
David Thornton (euphonium), Lemn Sissay (narrator)*
Black Dyke Band/Dr Nicholas Childs
rec. Morley Town Hall, 2006. DDD
DOYEN DOYCD229 [62:30]

David Thornton is only 28 years old, but he is already a major name in banding circles. He replaced Robert Childs as Black Dyke’s principal euphonium in 2000 (at 21!). On the evidence of this, his second solo album, he has nothing to fear in comparison with his legendary predecessor. He maintains a remarkably consistent and softly glowing tone throughout the breadth of his range. His fingers are fleet. Thornton's technique, to be frank, is superb but more than that, it is guided by a deep understanding and love for the music and for his instrument.
This disc is more than a mere showcase of his talents, though. It comprises a varied programme of new and not-so-new music, contrasting the dramatic with the gentle, but maintaining a high standard of musical quality throughout.
Among the highlights are the two pieces by Peter Meechan. Both are new works, composed only last year, and both are tightly constructed and highly enjoyable. Devil's Duel, the album's title track, was commissioned by David Thornton and was premiered not long before this recording was made. It is essentially a series of variations on Paganini's famous 24th caprice for solo violin. Thornton dispatches the theme with ease, but is soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary "air and variations" potboiler. The band's accompaniment is jazzily syncopated to start with, but as Thornton's solo weaves from complicated figurations to disarmingly lyrical sighs, a contest builds between soloist and members of the band. Thornton wins, of course, but not before showing the extent of his instrument’s range and his own resources in tonal colour and throwing in some harmonics for good measure in the cadenza.
Requiem Paraphrases, commissioned by and dedicated to Steven Mead, is if anything an even finer work. Like Devil's Duel, it takes its inspiration from existing music. The basis for its thematic material is the theme from the opening bars of Mozart's Requiem. Even more so than Devil's Duel, this piece departs from the typical "theme and variations" style of much brass music. It is more of a free rhapsody on Mozart's theme, beginning with an evocation of the mood of a Dies Irae and building, through Thornton’s exchanges with band, to a fiendish cadenza and an explosive finish. Along the way, Meechan contrasts mournful lyrical material with dark-edged syncopation. The colouring of the band accompaniment - in particular, the writing for marimba - is ear-catching.
A third work here in which Meechan has had a hand is the arrangement of the accompaniment to Bach's flute sonata BWV1033 for brass quintet. It sounds fabulous in this arrangement, with Thornton playing his adaptation of the flute solo with an easy virtuosity.
The established classic on this album is, of course, Philip Wilby's euphonium concerto. A tightly and formally constructed piece in four movements, it balances rapid runs and passage work with lyrical writing designed to display the euphonium's distinctive sound to best advantage. This piece has had many interpreters and exists in a version for euphonium and orchestra as well as the better known version for euphonium and band. Thornton's version is as good as any I have heard, but it is definitely the quickest. He is about four minutes faster overall than David Childs or Steven Mead, but his performance never feels breathless.
Interspersed with the bigger more complex pieces, providing welcome contrast of mood, are a few shorter lyrical numbers. John Stevens' Benediction is a short, gentle piece for tuba quartet (Thornton's solo euphonium being accompanied by a second euphonium and two tubas). The warm mellow sound of the ensemble and Thornton's bright mellifluous tone create a peaceful atmosphere here. Fernie's arrangement of the theme from Chopin's Etude No.3, Op.10 is old fashioned brass band schmaltz, and none the worse for that. Slightly more unusual on an album entitled “Devil’s Duel” is Richard Phillips’ arrangement of Joy Webb’s There Will be God. Webb’s intimate and soulful tune is well suited to the euphonium, though, and Phillips' arrangement is an increasingly popular euphonium solo. This is the third recording of the piece that I have heard and it compares well to the other two, being Derick Kane's and Aaron Vanderweele's performances. I know of at least one more recording of this piece, made by Thornton's former teacher Steven Mead on his album Locomotion (Bocchino Music BOCC104). Vanderweele's is perhaps the most straightforward of the three recordings I have heard, while Kane's is the most subtle. Thornton brings his sweet tone to the piece in a performance distinguished by natural rubato and a sense of the grandeur of Webb's tune. He hits the final high F cleanly too, though you can hear the air behind it.
The disc closes with something quite unusual. My Mountain Top was adapted especially for this recording from a piece for saxophone quartet, synthesizers and recorded narration, with the solo euphonium replacing all four saxophones. Thornton’s range of tone colour is dreamily evocative of heat and light as he first sets the stage and then weaves around and soars above Lemn Sissay's ardent narration.
The booklet notes provide brief but useful commentary on the music, an overview of the Black Dyke Band, a brief biography of Thornton himself, and an unnecessarily discursive four page biography of Dr Nicholas Childs, Black Dyke’s bandmaster. It would have been helpful to include the text of Lemn Sissay's recorded narration for My Mountain Top - which fortunately is easily understood as spoken - and the lyrics of Webb's There Will be God, given the importance of the relationship between text, tune and climaxes in this song. These complaints about the booklet are minor, though.
Lovers of fine brass playing will find much to enjoy here. If you have never heard the euphonium as a solo instrument before, Thornton will convince you as few others can.
Tim Perry


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