Kingdom of Dragons

Castell Caerfilli [2:44]
Kingdom of Dragons [13:40]
Trad. arr. Langford
All Through the Night [3:41]
Neal HEFTI arr. Sparke
Cute [3:12]
Jubilation! [6:00]
John RUTTER arr.Barry
A Gaelic Blessing [1:57]
Duke ELLINGTON & Juan TIZOL arr. Sykes
Caravan [3:54]
John BARRY & Edward GERMAN
Zulu: The Battle at Rorke’s Drift* [9:17]
Suo-Gân (1988) [4:35]
Ron GOODWIN arr. Farr
633 Squadron [2:45]
Gareth WOOD
Sosban Fach [3:42]
Freddy MERCURY arr. Harper
Don’t Stop Me Now [3:15]
Renaissance [9:42]
Matthew Routley (narrator)*
Greater Gwent Youth Brass Band/Philip Harper
rec. Date and location not given.
EGON SFZ 149 [69:34]

About half a lifetime ago I received one of the best musical upbringings I can imagine in the South Wales area. A considerable investment was made in me. After proving myself as a rising star on the recorder I was bought a flute, provided for years with a procession of peripatetic teachers, introduced to the joys of ensemble and orchestral playing from Saturday morning Wind Band, through the South Gwent and Gwent Youth Orchestras and up to the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, conducted at the time by Arthur Davison and coached by, among others, a whole bunch of his mates from the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Provided with financial support through my entire time at the Royal Academy of Music and including my first year at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, I have nothing but gratitude for the musical culture of Wales, and still consider it my spiritual home in that regard. So, when this new CD from the Greater Gwent Your Brass Band (GGYBB) turned up on our list of review discs, I leapt at the chance to hear how things were going ‘back home’.

The brass players in our youth orchestra were always considered more ‘real’ as musicians than the rest of us softies. Many of them travelled intrepid distances, down from the valleys, the first to become snowed in whenever the weather turned really bad but always a rock upon which you could build a decent orchestral sound. I was never really involved in the brass band world as a flute player, but remember the sense of team spirit and humour among those players, and will never forget when they once during a rehearsal collectively set off on the ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ a semitone lower than written. The conductor, more savvy than they might have hoped, soon stopped proceedings with a wry smile. “You must think I’m dull” was his immortal response, but it was only when they re-started in the correct key that most of the rest of us realised what was going on.

This excellent CD coincides with the GGYBB’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2010, and is a real showcase for a fine crowd of musicians. The programme is a fairly mixed bag of original works and arrangements, but is a well thought through mixture of the rousing and the subtly moving. The title work, Kingdom of Dragons is of course a central element. Written as a commission for the band, the single movement piece has four sections which each represent an area of the county of Gwent, ranging from the pageantry associated with ancient castles, the traditions of mining and industry, the sport of Rugby, and a fugal finale connected with my home town of Newport. This is a spectacular work which must be as much fun to play as it is to hear, and I am genuinely impressed by the technical abilities of the players in negotiating its demands. There are some lovely touches which show the composers’ feeling for the brass band in all its variety, its full range of sonorities - from some fantastic rude low noises introducing a railway ride, superbly illustrative percussion, some delightful little musical quotes and references, and a genuinely moving slow movement.

You might imagine that the rest of the programme would be fillers and padding, but on a CD of nearly 70 minutes little could be further from the truth. There are surprisingly few traditional tear-jerkers, All Though the Night being the only one really to fall into this category. John Rutter’s A Gaelic Blessing is another gentle melody, and Philip Sparke’s Suo-Gân from his Celtic Suite is another beautifully expressive piece in which the well modulated tones of this band sing out at their best. Jazz is nicely represented in a swinging arrangement of Neal Hefti’s Cute, made famous as a Count Basie standard, and Duke Ellington’s evergreen Caravan, sounding here a bit like a 1970s TV theme, and with a fine trombone solo from Ian Perry. Other notable contributions are Zulu: The Battle at Rorke’s Drift given a dramatic rendering, and narrated with creditable directness by Matthew Routley. Another highly effective film theme is Ron Goodwin’s irrepressible 633 Squadron. Freddy Mercury transfers very nicely to the Welsh idiom in Don’t Stop Me Now, and the programme is wound up with a substantial piece from Peter Graham, Renaissance. This work appropriately salutes the Salvation Army contribution to this CD’s production and distribution, weaving themes by Major Joy Webb into a piece which rounds off a fine programme in suitably optimistic and uplifting style.

Yes, this is a youth band, and there are a few moments where ensemble and intonation are a wee bit off, but I have to say I have been truly taken aback by the high standards on this disc. The recording is very good indeed, and detailed enough to expose every fault in the performance - something which makes the excellent final results all the more impressive. The presentation is highly professional, with a full list of players, decent notes and a picture disc finish for the CD. Looking at the booklet photos I would say this has been made in St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, but I may be wrong, I seem to remember the seats were green where they are red in the pictures. Hearing this has restored my faith in the fine musical traditions of Wales and my home county of Monmouthshire/Gwent, and long may this powerhouse of UK talent production remain in full flow.

Dominy Clements

Very high standards, long may this tradition continue. ... see Full Review