I have long held a niggling suspicion that many of those who claim a distaste for brass band music have never heard proper
brass banding. Their inner ear resonates to the sound of maudlin versions of Danny Boy
played by quavering cornets. At which point enters a magnificent disc such as the one here to blow all such preconceptions and prejudices away. This is simply glorious and I dare anyone with a taste for dramatic and immediately engaging music not to be instantly impressed.
Doyen has produced a disc of ‘disc of the year’ calibre. This is the fifth - and to date final - volume in their survey of the complete brass band music of Edward Gregson (review
). Founded as long ago as 1988 by the Childs brothers - Robert and Nicholas - Doyen has made a speciality of recording the finest brass bands playing the finest music written for that medium. There are many excellent discs in their back catalogue
which I urge readers to sample if they have not already. Near the top of that impressive list must sit this group of recordings dedicated to Edward Gregson.
The disc opens with Of Distant Memories (Music in an Olden Style)
. The ‘olden style’ is not the faux-Gabrieli that for some reason I assumed before hearing the disc or reading the liner. Instead Gregson finds a fascinating link between the premiere performance in 1913 of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
and the composition of the first original test-piece composed for a British band contest; Percy Fletcher’s Labour and Love
. So this is a piece flecked through with musical gestures and reminiscences of a century earlier whilst clearly belonging to the modern age too. Paul Hindmarsh’s extremely perceptive and well-informed liner makes this link too; “throughout his career, Gregson has enjoyed working in tributes or acts of homage … from respectful quotations … to an applied stylistic veneer … or the re-imagining of existing material”. The upshot of which means this is music which successfully bridges the modern and the pre-modern. Within a minute of the work’s opening we go from a gently flowing hymn-like melody to a heroic full-band peroration of genuine power and considerable emotional weight. What a glorious sound the Black Dyke Band makes whether in the first minute of epic power or the extraordinary pin-sharp virtuosity of the running passage-work that erupts before a second minute is complete. It would be wrong to imply that the piece relies for its impact on big or dramatic gestures alone. Gregson’s real and exceptional skill as a composer for brass band is shown in the extended central reflective passage. I particularly like the intertwining solos written around the 10 minute mark with glinting contributions from celesta … I think … it has a tinge of Holst’s Uranus
that sounds too “soft” to be a glockenspiel. This raises the music far beyond festival-spectacle alone.
The Trombone Concerto is the earliest work on the disc. The original version with orchestral accompaniment was written in 1979 and that version received an excellent recording on Chandos
with Peter Moore as soloist. According to the liner Gregson had resisted transcribing the orchestral parts for brass band despite many requests until 2012. If pushed I would say I prefer the original simply for the extra range of timbres and textures an orchestra can offer but once again there is nothing but praise for the quality of what we hear. The soloist here is Brett Baker who has the solo trombone chair in the band and his is a stunning performance. If Of Distant Memories
pays tribute to the core tradition of competition and display then this concerto and the Symphony that closes the disc show that this genre can encompass music just as abstract and ‘serious’ as any. Congratulations again to the Doyen engineers for finding an ideal placement for Baker within the overall soundstage. Having commented on the seriousness of the work it would be quite wrong not to acknowledge the lovely flowing second subject [track 2 2:50] which has the easy memorable quality of Malcolm Arnold at his sunniest. Running to just over the quarter hour this is a compact and brilliantly crafted work - lean and lithe. The opening of the slow movement is a section that benefits from the deep sonorities a brass band can bring with the echoing trumpet and muted cornets giving it a mourning mood of great poignant beauty. A testing cadenza links the slow movement attacca
into the closing Allegro. The bulk of this movement is a “jaunty scherzo” to quote Hindmarsh again and apart from being briefly hijacked by the opening slow material this thoroughly approachable work ends positively.
The title of the next work Rococo Variations
is again misleading. Yes, the original theme has the rhythmic outline of a Sarabande and the following variations superficially mirror a baroque suite. This is more of an Enigma
-esque act of homage and friendship than a Tchaikovskian piece of baroquery. Each variation is in fact a tribute to a composer closely linked with the brass band world. I have to admit that this lies way outside my knowledge so the subtle nuances or cross-references are rather lost on me. Taken as a piece of absolute music, which is how I have to approach it, it is absolutely glorious. Hard again, not to be charmed by the sheer wit and brilliance of the 3rd
Variation - Waltz
- in homage to Eric Ball. Listen to the absurdly brilliant cascading runs of the Black Dyke players - phenomenal virtuosity borne with nonchalant ease. The following Moto Perpetuo
in tribute to the wonderful John McCabe is another tour de force
which skirls away into a powerful and impressively sustained Chaconne
. Again, it is hard not to be impressed at the sheer power of the musical inspiration here and in it lies the heart not just of this work but the entire disc. It closes with a tail-chasing Fugal Scherzo
which brings backs references to the preceding variations and their associated composers as well as the ‘new’ homage to Philip Wilby and some Monteverdi, La Folia
. A 12-tone counter-subject and
- at least I thought so! - passing echoes of Walton and Vaughan Williams. I dare anyone to listen to the work’s peroration (track 5 from 15:00 on) and not find this climax uplifting and inspiring. Collectors should note that this recording has previously been released on the Doyen CD Within the Blue Empires
where it is part of a mixed composer programme.
Before the closing Symphony there is a 12 minute conversation between the composer and Paul Hindmarsh. Clearly, something like this is not going to be listened to every time the disc is played but I would say this has greater value than the average artist/journalist interview. This is simply because Hindmarsh (the dedicatee of the Symphony) and Gregson are old friends and professional associates so Hindmarsh interviews with real authority and insight and he is clearly comfortable answering intelligent and apt questions. Much of the material is covered in the liner but the extra detail given in the talk makes this an audio document of considerable value.
Hindmarsh describes the two-movement Symphony as “... by some margin Gregson’s most complete abstract work for the medium.” Freed from any act of homage or competitive imperative this is Gregson focusing on his own preferred compositional techniques. The sign of a great work is one where the mechanics “under the bonnet” are brilliantly sophisticated yet the aural impact on the listener is one of effortless musical power. So, from the talk, we learn that Gregson uses quasi-serial techniques with an 11-tone row subjected to all the inversions and retrogrades beloved of the Second Viennese School. Yet this proves that these processes do not result in music of desiccated intellectual sterility. Instead we are given a work of exceptional brilliance - in every sense - which appeals to both the intellect with its compact control of form and content and the heart with passages of dazzling brilliance stunningly executed. Devotees of this series will have bought this disc on the day of release. For those yet to be convinced or converted I urge exploration. Together with The Trumpets of the Angels
(which closed Vol.4 in this series) this must be one of the most impressive all-round recordings of brass band music in recent years.