As a fan of the much-missed Philip Jones Brass
Ensemble – disbanded in 1996 – I’ve been waiting for someone to
fill the gap left by that talented bunch. I was always drawn to
the urban pep, the metropolitan sophistication, of the PJBE’s
playing, which made a change from the earthier – but to me less
satisfying – sound of Black Dyke Mills and other colliery bands.
Indeed, hearing a brass band in full cry – a rare occurrence these
days – is a uniquely thrilling experience, and one with an uncommonly
high goose-bump count.
So what does London Brass, formed in 1986, have to offer? The title of this collection, Tea for Two,
is a bit misleading as one might be tempted to think it’s all jazzy, 20th
-century fare. In fact it kicks off in the 17th
, with the dances from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore
. First impressions are of a light, fleet-footed playing style, sonorities remarkably like the shawms and sackbuts of the time. especially in the Courante
The latter is particularly appealing, as it modulates from solemn stateliness to skirts-up good fun and back again. And there’s some nimble playing in the concluding Ballet
as well, the music fading most atmospherically at the close.
A good start then, although some might find the high brass a little too acid at times; never mind, that’s easily neutralised with a tweak of the treble control. Perspectives are fine though, with antiphonal effects very well managed. The six dances from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos
are rather more trenchant, with some delectable shading in the lower brass and fine control of rhythm throughout. Indeed, there are times when this music reminds me of the fevered world of The Miraculous Mandarin.
Full marks to arranger Christopher Mowat for capturing that Bartókian tang so well.
The eight German dances by Schubert are not drawn from a single work but culled from D783 (1823-1825) and D790 (op. posth). There’s a welcome lift and lilt to these tunes, and plenty of contrast too. I particularly like the way these players shade and shape this music, bringing out the ‘singing Schubert’ so familiar from the solo piano pieces. Really, it’s every bit as polished as anything PJBE have done. And then there’s the winning wit of Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two,
which Shostakovich famously orchestrated in just 40 minutes. As for the Weill-like jauntiness to the playing, it’s entirely apt; what a pity it’s all over so soon.
Dvořák’s ebullient Slavonic Dances
will test a player’s skills when it comes to rhythm and articulation, and I’m pleased to say London Brass aren’t found wanting in either respect. There is a joyful pliancy, a burble and bounce, to their playing that is utterly infectious. And although Moritz Moszkowski’s Spanish Dance
isn’t that memorable it’s tossed off with a mix of hot-blooded temperament and smoky languor. Then Henze’s Ragtimes and Habaneras
simply steals the show with its cocky little tunes and piquant writing. Slinky slides and echoes of Carmen
alternate with darker, more dissonant episodes, but it’s the racier music that impresses most. A real treat this, and a fine arrangement by David Purser.
After that the Villa-Lobos Mazurka-Chôro,
written for solo guitar, seems rather mellow and dream-like, underpinned by some rich, velvety tuba playing from Oren Marshall. These musicians are just as adept in the flickering sounds and bracing rhythms of de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance.
Not especially fiery, perhaps, but still a rousing conclusion to this most entertaining collection.
In his review
of London Brass’s Send in the clowns,
Michael Cookson commented on Teldec’s ultra-skimpy booklets; I have to agree, they are lamentable True, this is previously released material at a budget price, but such poor presentation really doesn’t do justice to the premium-priced playing on offer. I will now seek out this band’s other discs – Modern Times,
featuring the work of Tippett and Takemitsu, looks especially interesting – but it makes absolutely no sense that a group this good should rely on CDs recorded more than 20 years ago. New discs – perhaps even an SACD or two – would be most welcome. And soon, please.