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Highlights of the Norwegian Brass Band Championships 2006
CD1
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Eden (2005) [15:01]
Stavanger Brass Band/Russell Gray
Peter GRAHAM

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2005) [15:43]
Tomra Brass Band/Frans Violet
Philip SPARKE
Kaleidoscope [11:12]
Follesø Musikklag/Egil Magnussen
Geir DAVIDSEN
Babylonian Tablets [15:41]
Tromsø Brass Band/Robert Jensen
Per-Anders EMILSEN (b. 1964)
Guovssahasat [12:35]
Ila Brass Band/Trond Korsgård
Goff RICHARDS (b.1944)
Voyage of Discovery [10:44]
CD2
Ørjan MATRE (b. 1980)
Klang! [18:59]
Stavanger Brass Band/Russell Gray
Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
Paganini Variations [16:59]
Oslo Brass Band/Michael Antrobus
James CURNOW (b. 1943)
Trittico [12:41]
Sørum Musikklag/Erling Myrseth
Goff RICHARDS (b. 1944)
Voyage of Discovery [11:26]
Jølster Musikklag/Arvid Anthun
Torstein AAGAARD-NILSEN (b. 1964)
Cantigas [20:17]
Manger Musikklag/Robert Childs
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 10–11 February 2006. DDD
DOYEN DOYCD209 [80:29] + 79:51] 
 

Norway is arguably the most significant brass-banding European nation outside the United Kingdom. It’s a measure of how seriously the movement is taken there, as indeed is music in general, that bands receive a good deal of government funding, often enabling them to undertake recording and concert tour projects that bands in Britain could only dream about.

When it comes to the annual Norwegian Brass Band Championships, it would be difficult to imagine a contest in the UK that could be spread over the course of a Friday and a Saturday; such are the work and professional commitments that many bandsmen and women here have to contend with. Yet this is how the Norwegians have come to structure their home championship, modelled along the lines of the European Championships in which each of the bands plays a set test piece on one day and a work of their own choice on the other. The winner is the band with the highest aggregate over the two days of contesting. It is a system that many believe to be a more telling test of a band’s ability and consistency than the one piece system that has been used in the UK since the very earliest days of brass band contests.

For some years now Doyen has released an annual two disc set showcasing the best performances over the course of the Norwegian contest. The recording is designed to reflect not just the elite of the Norwegian bands - of which there are several very fine outfits indeed - but also the bands from lower sections whose contributions are every bit as important to the health and success of the movement in general.

What we get is a fascinating overview of Norwegian banding in general, displaying a culture and attitude that is often far more adventurous in its choice of contemporary repertoire than would ever be the case in the UK.

There are four immediate examples of this to be found on these two compact discs. The set test piece in the Elite Section, Ørjan Matre’s Klang(!) was written in 2002 when the composer was just twenty-one. It is a stunningly accomplished piece for a composer so young and here receives an equally accomplished performance from the ultimate winners of the championship, Stavanger Brass Band under Scotsman Russell Gray. This is a piece capable of causing an outcry amongst the conservatives of the British band movement with its dissonance and two electro-acoustic “interludes” but to hear it played with this degree of virtuosity is something special indeed.

Torstein Aagaard–Nilsen is a young composer who has been quietly making his mark on the brass band scene in Europe for some time. Although his music has figured in the European Championships, he has not yet been adopted by the movers and shakers on the British contest scene. His Cantigas was commissioned by Manger Musikklag who gave its premiere as their own choice test-piece under the direction of Robert Childs. The band ultimately gained the runner-up position to Stavanger. Whilst undeniably contemporary in its language Nilsen’s work is perhaps less controversial than Matre’s but no less demanding on the players who respond at times in breath-taking fashion. This is particularly the case in the latter section of the work where the composer utilises dance-like rhythms to emphasise the folk elements of the Spanish medieval song tradition from which he drew his inspiration.

Two further premieres in the form of Babylonian Tablets by Geir Davidsen and the intriguingly titled Guovssahasat (the Lappish word for northern light) by Per-Anders Emilsen complete the new works. Once again these are evidence of the progressive attitude of the bands - Tromsø Brass Band under Robert Jensen and Ila Brass Band directed by Trond Korsgård - from outside the “elite” division. Babylonian Tablets is inspired by the clay tablets dating to 3000-4000 BC found around the rivers Eufrat and Tigris and from which much has been learned about ancient legend and life in the area. Davidsen fashions his work around Persian folk music as recorded in the 1920s and 1930s whilst also drawing on imitated sounds of ancient instruments that have modern counterparts. It’s not an easy task but the results are at times exhilarating and Tromsø convey a real sense of enthusiasm for the music in their highly committed performance. Emilsen’s work is more abstract, both structurally and melodically, in its portrayal of the ever-shifting patterns of the northern lights. As such it is more difficult to grasp on a first hearing. Ila Brass make a convincing argument for its cause although ultimately it does not quite succeed in creating as vivid an impression as the other new works recorded here.

The remaining pieces will be more familiar to aficionados of the brass band although a couple are worthy of particular mention. John Pickard’s Eden made a big impression when it was chosen as the test-piece for the British National Championship Finals in 2005. Stavanger give a tremendously engaging reading that gets disc one off to a cracking start. There is the opportunity to compare two performances of Goff Richards Voyage of Discovery given by bands from two different divisions whilst other bands outside the elite section give creditable if not note-perfect readings of James Curnow’s Trittico, Philip Wilby’s Paganini Variations, a piece that has now attained almost legendary status in brass bands circles and works by Peter Graham and Philip Sparke.

It is a measure of the musical variety the Norwegian Championships has to offer, not to mention the strengths of the bands across the divisions, that Doyen is able to put together a two disc set that can succeed as a complete listening experience to this degree. It is also a patently obvious sign for those who didn’t know it already that British bands no longer have it all their own way.

Christopher Thomas


 


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