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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
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
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
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.
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]