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Black Castles
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) (arr. Dudley Bright)
Severn Suite, Op.87 (1930) [17:33]
Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b. 1923)
Triton Suite, Op.46 (1972) [11:44]
Derek BOURGEOIS (b. 1941)
William and Mary, Op.106 (1981) [17:48]
Sir John TAVENER (b. 1944)
Trisagion (1981) [14:21]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Black Castles (2002) [10:59]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1960)
Set To (1992-1993) [7:40]
brass partout/Hermann Bšumer
rec. July 2003, Furuby Church, Sweden. DDD
BIS CD1354 [81:36]
Experience Classicsonline

German brass ensemble, brass partout, has been putting together an interesting series of albums for BIS. After a disc of Nordic music and another focusing on the Russians, they turn now to British music.
The disc opens with Elgar's Severn Suite, originally composed for brass band but heard here in an arrangement for brass ensemble by composer and principal trombonist of the London Symphony Orchestra, Dudley Bright. This performance is a very good one, but falls short of greatness due to a certain blandness of expression. The introduction that depicts Worcester Castle is fleet and light on its feet, but does not live up to Elgar's marking of "pomposo". A weightier tread is needed. The gentle, almost pastoral grandeur evoked in the fugue depicting Worcester Cathedral is fitting, but the minuet for the Commandery is similarly soft-grained. The toccata for The Tournament could do with more fire too.
The two pieces I most enjoyed on this album were Arthur Butterworth's Triton Suite and William and Mary by Derek Bourgeois. Both are entertaining, individual and very well played but strikingly different in their musical language.
The Triton Suite is a tightly wrought and atmospheric work, economically and transparently scored for a septet of three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. Its first movement opens with fanfares and builds through sweet dissonances, bringing to mind the dangerous pageantry of the joust. The following vivace has a hint of Malcolm Arnold jauntiness to it, though the idiom is very definitely Butterworth's. The adagio, with muted brass and fine dissonances, is broodingly ominous. The final allegretto has a nice thrust, built on an insistent ostinato which disappears briefly for a heroic fanfare on sweet-toned trumpets but reappears to power the music to its close. The piece sounds like a tone poem to me, but if there is a programme the booklet notes are assiduous in omitting any details of it. The piece brings out the best in brass partout - their balancing of parts is expert here.
William and Mary is softer in idiom and likely to appeal to a broad audience, harking back to the best of British light music. Though written to a commission from the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the sound-world of the traditional brass band is never far away. It is a tone poem in five movements which illustrate episodes in the lives of William III and Mary II of England. The opening fanfare has a nice swagger and the second movement, illustrating the new monarchs' landing after passage from Holland, has a sense of foreboding, highlighted by the high tuba writing, which is beautifully played here. The third movement depicts the King's Champion with a jaunty swagger to his gait. The fourth movement, entitled The Death of Mary, exudes a melancholy built on lush harmonies and beautifully sustained playing. There is tragedy in the final bars as the lower brass intone and descend. The Achievement lacks a little in tension - a firmer pulse and sharper articulation, especially with the changes of metre, would have made this concluding movement more effective.
Composed in the same year as William and Mary, Sir John Tavener's Trisagion is a very different work. It is built on patterns, with running scales, punctuating tonally ambiguous and spiky writing in which the upper voices, and antiphonal effects. Much of the interest in this piece comes from the blending and contrasting of the voices of the different brass instruments, and the shading of dynamics. This is well handled. Originally composed as a quintet, the parts are doubled in this performance.
The album's title track is also the most recently composed and was commissioned from John Pickard by brass partout. From the soft mist of sound that opens the work, through its flaring discords, brooding close harmony and striking gestures, this is an involving piece of dissonant tone painting that evokes the atmosphere of Black Castles - not man made edifices but a craggy volcanic landscape in Iceland's far north. brass partout are in superb form here.
The closing track is well chosen. Mark-Anthony Turnage is three years Pickard's senior and Set To, though composed just over a decade ago, feels just as contemporary as Black Castles. Marked as a Bacchanale, it opens with portentous statements - vaguely reminiscent of JanŠček's Sinfonietta - but almost immediately the brass begins to growl and bray as a jazzy syncopation begin to pierce the music's texture. It never really whips up into the sort of frenzy to be expected from a conventional Bacchanale, but this muscular music is in constant motion.
The booklet notes are detailed and will give newcomers and connoisseurs alike plenty of handles to grasp. BIS's sound quality is very high. Sound engineer Thore Brinkmann surely deserves some of the credit for the superb balancing of parts on this album and the attractive bloom of the sound-picture.
This is a valuable addition to a valuable series and will, I hope, continue to raise the profile of music for brass ensemble within the classical mainstream. I look forward to the next instalment in this series - America this time? I hope it will be long-lived enough to return to the rich British brass music repertoire soon, as I would love to hear this ensemble tackle the works of Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson, among others.
Tim Perry


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