I am always amazed at the superb musicality of brass bands.
It is not just the quality of the playing that impresses me,
but the adventurousness of the repertoire. When I hear the local
town brass band on the sea-front, more often than not they are
playing arrangements of standards, pop classics and old favourites.
After the film Brassed Off there was a huge demand for
‘Orange Juice’ or rather the slow movement from Rodrigo’s ubiquitous
guitar concerto! Yet there is a more profound side to the world
of brass band music – that of the seemingly endless competitions.
In the present CD’s case this is the Brass Band Championship
of Great Britain, 2010 which took place in October in Harrogate
and at the Royal Albert Hall. The disc showcases six pieces
that were written specifically for the medium, played back to
back with three arrangements.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the ‘original’ pieces much more
than the arrangements: however I guess that the judges are looking
at an all-round technique and exploitation of both massed brass
and soloist endeavours. So a wide stylistic variety of pieces
However, I need to get some gripes off my chest before I can
review this otherwise excellent CD with an equitable mind. Four
things really annoyed me. Firstly, I had to spend nearly an
hour on the Internet trying to find dates for composers, arrangers
and compositions. In many cases I failed. For some reason a
number of ‘living’ composers’ websites do not give their date
of birth! I have never been embarrassed about my age – so why
should they? More importantly, D.O.B. gives the listener (and
reviewer) some historical background that can be very important
when evaluating a given piece. Secondly, it is essential to
know when a piece of music was composed and how it is situated
in the timeline of the composer’s other music in particular
and musical history in general. Thirdly, whoever designed the
liner-notes needs to re-evaluate their art. Trying to read a
small font on a largely grey background with a superimposed
picture of the Albert Hall is not easy even when the eyes are
top-notch! It may look good on the computer: it is less impressive
for those of us with aging or failing sight. Lastly, there are
nine works presented on this CD – the liner-notes fail to discuss
four of them. So I will have little to say about them except
whether I like them of not! Right … now on to the music!
Of the composers presented here only three are known to me:
however in the world of brass, I guess that the rest are important
and regular contributors of new scores.
Martin Ellerby’s Terra Australis is a powerful work which
musically explores the history and landscape of that great country.
From the ‘spirit of Captain Cook searching the coastal waters’
through the observation of the indigenous population to the
joy of a new life and optimistic future, the triumphs and the
tragedies, the vast unexplored vistas’: they are all represented
here. The music is satisfying, approachable but never derivative.
The work concludes with a massive ‘Anthem for a Nation’. The
work was played by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band who were
declared the winners of the Championship Section at the Albert
Possibly one of the most impressive works on this CD is the
Diversions on a Bass Theme by George Lloyd. This is,
I believe, regarded as an extremely difficult work by the brass
band fraternity. Certainly, based on the performance given by
the Friary Guildford Band this piece appears complex, diverse
and technically ‘impossible’. Yet they give an excellent account
of what is quite evidently a ‘warhorse’. I notice that the CD
catalogues contain two other versions of this work – by the
Grimethorpe and Black Dyke Mills bands. So they are in great
The work was commissioned by the Coal Industry Social Welfare
Organisation in 1986 as the test-piece for the annual Mineworkers
National Brass Band Contest. The composer appended a note to
the score: ‘This piece is a set of variations. Traditionally
variations were what they said they were, i.e. a given tune
was treated in a variety of ways. The pattern of Diversions
on a Bass Theme is made the other way round: a number of
tunes grow out of the first bar, played by the Basses, which
provides the motif for the whole work.’ It is surely one of
the masterpieces of the brass band world.
Philip Wilby has written that his Psalms and Alleluias
is ‘a big piece for little people’: it was composed for the
National Children’s Band of Great Britain in 2008. All I can
say is that they must be absolutely top-flight to be able to
play such a complex and involved, but ultimately effective piece.
There is no way that Wilby has written down to the players:
in fact he has stretched them beyond the call of duty. This
is thoroughly enjoyable music that is varied and calls for showcasing
of solo instruments. The central section is truly beautiful
and downright moving. The Tylorstown Band gives a great account
of this work.
I will lightly pass over the arrangements as being ‘fillers’
to what is the main event. There are three works – Innuendo,
which is based on a Queen tune, the Stenstrom song Eyes of
a Child and a theme from A Fistful of Dollars. They
appear to me to be workmanlike arrangements with little to recommend
them except perhaps in the realm of technical difficulty.
Willow Pattern by Philip Harper is a musical evocation
of the renowned ceramic pattern designed by Thomas Minton in
the 1790s and seen in houses and tearooms ever since. There
are a number of different versions of the romantic tale that
supposedly inspired this design. The key thing to listen for
in this gorgeous piece is the masterly use of the solo instruments.
The conclusion of the legend has the two lovers transformed
into turtle doves who soar into the sky. This imagery is well-presented
by the Delph Band.
I think that my favourite piece on this CD was A Royal Mile
Suite by the Scottish composer Alan Fernie. This was composed
in 1989 and within the confines of its four movements celebrates
the historical Royal Mile in Edinburgh. To remind listeners,
this street runs from Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament
building up to the Castle. On the way it passes many fine buildings
and institutions, including St Giles Cathedral. The first movement
gives a regal account of the listener’s mood At the Palace
Gates. This leads on to the heart of the work, which is
a meditation in the beautiful Holyrood Park with the
brooding Salisbury Craggs of Arthur’s Seat. It is a misty morning
to boot. However, for a brief moment the skies clear and a glorious
view is given – from the Bass Rock to Ben Lui. The third movement
changes mood to suggest the ambiguous life of Nancy McElhose,
an eighteenth-century lady who ran a tea shop by day and a brothel
by night! It is chock-full of Scottish colour and deserves its
title of Jenny Ha’s Reel. The final movement is an impressive,
if slightly languorous march. Having walked the length of the
Royal Mile on many occasions, from the Palace to the Castle
I can sympathise with the slight feeling of (intended) lethargy.
All in all this is a great work.
The liner-notes give no information about Mambo to Go
composed by Robin Dewhurst, however this an exciting piece that
would make a fine encore. Based on a dance-form originally developed
in Havana by a certain Cachao this is a cool exploration of
rhythm and brass instrumental colour. The word ‘Mambo’ means
a ‘conversation with the gods’. The performance on this recording
was taken from a pre-competition concert by Foden’s Band. It
makes a great finish to the CD.
Apart from the reservations noted above, this is a superb CD.
It will no doubt be in the collection of all brass band players
and enthusiasts. However, there is a wider attraction than this
specialist market. I guess most people love the sound of a brass
band, whether it is the Salvation Army band playing hymns and
carols at Christmas, or maybe the local band giving a summer’s
day recital in the town square. It is good to push beyond the
‘arranged favourites’ and discover something of the music that
has been specifically composed for the medium. The listener
will find much to enjoy and be moved by.