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Christmas with Septura
Septura (Alan Thomas & Simon Cox - Trumpets in B flat, Huw Morgan - Trumpet in E flat, Sasha Koushk-Jalali - Tuba, Matthew Gee & Matthew Knight - Trombones, Daniel West - Bass Trombone)
rec. St. Paul's Church Southgate London, 4-6 June 2016
NAXOS 8.573719 [64:15]

As it says in the first line of the booklet of this excellent disc; "Brass instruments are almost a Christmas cliché". But while this might be a disc firmly targeted at the Seasonal market - right down to the seven Santa hats and snow on the slightly naff cover - the quality of the music, arranging and playing is worthy of all-year listening.

This appears to be Septura Brass' fifth disc for Naxos. The earlier ones have focussed on a specific historical period whereas this Christmas disc traverses the centuries from Renaissance to Baroque and Romantic through to 20th Century Carol settings. All of the arrangements are by either Simon Cox, who plays 2nd trumpet and is the founder and artistic director of the group, or Matthew Knight who is also listed as artistic director and plays 2nd trombone. The line-up of this seven-piece ensemble is slightly unusual: 3 trumpets, 3 trombones (one bass) and tuba. The absence of a horn is striking but it has to be said the brilliance of the arrangements and their execution means the 'loss' is more theoretical than practical.

I thoroughly enjoyed this disc from first to last. The programme skilfully balances familiar and unusual music and is drawn together by the considerable skill of the arranging and playing. The sound of Septura is exceptionally beautiful - warm and rounded but with dazzling brilliance too when required. Crudely put the 4:3 split between 'high' and 'low' brass instruments allows their sound to be built on a richly voiced mid to low register. Aided by the pleasing resonant acoustic of St. Paul's Church Southgate and the sympathetic engineering of Phil Rowlands this is a beautiful sounding disc. Interesting to compare the overall character of the sound of Septura to other brass groups. By building their sound from the bottom up they seem to produce a collective tone that is more Germanic than some. Certainly they avoid the overt and occasionally wearing, brilliance of groups such as Empire Brass. They also make quite a different sound from more immediate predecessors such as the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble. I know Jones often worked with a larger basic group but Septura, certainly on this disc, produce a rounder more moulded sound. I wonder if the players have a background in brass band playing. It struck me that they occupy a position somewhere between a brighter-toned orchestral brass section and the warmth of a band.

As mentioned the programme is wide ranging. No surprise that the pre-Baroque works by Schütz, Palestrina and Praetorius are a delight. Likewise the suite of movements chosen from Bach's Christmas cantatas is a joy. Bach's bustling counterpoint is played with clarity and brilliance and the chorales are poised and moving. Importantly, throughout the programme, these are musically as well as technically satisfying performances. In fact the perfection of ensemble, balance and intonation is striking. Juxtaposing a Praetorius setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen with the same by Brahms is as delightful as it is fascinating. Two other 'suites' have been created; one of Warlock's ever popular and touching carols and another of three movements from The Messiah. The latter focuses on the end of the work with The trumpet shall sound - featuring bass trombonist Daniel West as a suitably 'pompous' soloist accompanied by Huw Morgan's heraldic trumpet - leading into the closing Worthy is the Lamb and closing Amen chorus. As in the full choral work these three sections build to a wonderfully rousing conclusion. I like very much in the arranging how original string lines are given to muted trumpets with choral/continuo distributed elsewhere - it allows the ear to follow the original work very easily even when reduced to just seven musical lines. Another nice touch is to close the disc not on such a stirring note but with a lovely gentle arrangement of Silent Night.

This is a disc of delights. A minor reservation is that the extended arrangements of the out-and-out carols feel a verse or two too long. This is not due to any lack of skill in arranging or playing but simply because there are no the words or vocal soloists to 'point' the changes from verse to verse. This, whilst effective, brings the arrangement aspect to the fore rather than the music. The briefer Warlock carols work best musically because of their inherent beauty and their brevity. But this is nit-picking. In the liner Matthew Knight makes a good case for how these carol arrangements are conceived and in their own right they are very beautiful.

The presence of the carol arrangements will mean that this will be considered seasonal fare - but of the very highest order. Brass at Christmas might well be a cliché but when it is as good as this that is no penalty.

Nick Barnard

Disc contents
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Das Wort ward Fleisch [3:12]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Suite [9:54]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976)
In the bleak midwinter [5:02]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [2:33]
Johannes BRAHMS (1883-1897)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [2:13]
Pyotr Il'ycih TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Crown of Roses [2:32]
Mykola LEONTOVYCH (1877-1921)
Carol of the Bells [1:17]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Christmas Medley [7:48]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594)
Canite tuba [2:12]
Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1571/2)
Ave Maria [4:37]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vespers (All-Night Vigil) Op.37 Nos.6-7 [5:09]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874)
The Three Kings [2:33]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah - excerpts [11:00]
Franz GRUBER (1787-1863)
Silent Night [3:08]



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