Gilbert VINTER (1909-1969)
Symphony of Marches (1963) [12:13]
Wilfred HEATON (1918-2000)
Partita (1947/1984) [22:55]
Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Ragtimes and Habaneras (1975) [14:43]
Elgar HOWARTH (b.1935)
Fireworks* (1975) [18:36]
The Cory Band/Philip Harper
Morgan Jones* (narrator)
rec. Parc Hall, Cwm Parc, Wales, 6-7 June, 11-12 July 2015
DOYEN DOYCD355 [68:27]
Another disc that amply demonstrates the remarkable calibre of the finest brass bands. If this were an elite German or American string/chamber ensemble people would be swooning over the quality of the music-making on display here. Just because it is from the world of the brass band the reaction is more likely to be one of surprise - if it has been considered at all.
This in part explains the disc's title of "Neglected Treasures" and treasures all four works prove to be. These gems sparkle in the staggeringly assured hands of the Cory Band and their director Phillip Harper. As Harper writes in a foreword to the liner-note, this CD programme has been chosen to showcase works of considerable musical quality and merit that do not feature regularly in band programmes. The disc opens with Gilbert Vinter's Symphony of Marches. Before your eyes glaze over at the prospect of a quarter-hour of hale and hearty oom-pahing this is a subtly skilful work. Not to embrace at some point the brash confidence of a parade-band style would be perverse but Vinter finds a range of emotion within the basic 'march' style that is wholly convincing. From the very first bars the sheer calibre of the playing and production on this disc is evident too. The opening maestoso is the most obviously 'marching-band' section which thunders and blazes out of entrance of the gladiators but with enough quirks of harmony and instrumentation to tickle the ear while the toe is also tapping. Harper describes the central Grave as a "doom-laden dirge" which is a perfect description. There are wonderful opportunities here for the lower register instruments to glower and growl in the gloom. It's more of a miniature tone poem than a march. The finale is a kaleidoscope of overlapping styles - a virtuosic display for all sections with lop-sided 7/8 metres clashing against Spanish-inflected passages. It reminded me of Ben-Hur's charioteers and even a little passing fugal passage for good measure. This is polished, skilful and witty music that is performed in exactly that self-same manner.
The next work proves to be the absolute discovery; Wilfred Heaton's remarkable Partita for Band. Again to quote Harper; "[Heaton] was a composer with perhaps the most natural instinct and creative imagination the brass band world has ever witnessed but also a man of great sensitivity and self-doubt, whose constant rejection by the conservative banding world ... undoubtedly resulted in his relatively small output". To which has to be added - at the wider world's loss. This Partita was conceived in 1947 as a three movement Suite which Heaton reworked with the addition of a fourth movement for orchestra. It was not until the eventual acceptance by the band world of his seminal Contest Music - this work appears on a wonderful Chandos/Black Dyke Mills disc - "The Complete Champions" - in 1984 that the Suite emerged, with the 'new' additional movement re-written for band, as this Partita. As a band piece written in the 1940s this is quite without equal; big serious music that makes near superhuman demands of the players which the Cory Band surmount with staggering skill. The important thing to note is not just the individual virtuosity on display but the collective razor-sharp precision in terms of rhythm, ensemble and tuning that the band achieve. It is one thing to play complex, far from obvious, pieces like this accurately, it is quite another to play them with the bravura and confidence displayed here. That is only achieved by hours of practice and dedication.
The musical vocabulary of the work is nothing too extreme - the astringent harmonies of Walton or Arnold spring to mind. What particularly impresses me is both emotional and technical. Heaton deploys a range of instrumental colour and timbre to underline the equally wide dramatic scope of the music. Again, I have nothing but praise for this new recording where the Cory band are clearly wholly committed and the wide dynamic range from ghostly cornet solos to implacable walls of sound from the full band are caught with total fidelity. The 'new' scherzo comes second and is a tour-de-force for which the term was coined. Without a score to hand I am after repeated listening none the wiser as to how this is written out on the page. The rhythms twist and turn like a musical aerial dogfight. I would imagine that this is music that could collapse into chaos with one fractionally mistimed entry. I cannot imagine this being better performed than here. After which the poignantly nostalgic Canzona is a most effective counterbalance. Just when you thought the Scherzo had made the ultimate demands of the players along comes the closing Rondo. Simply staggering - I know I've used this description twice earlier - barely does this justice. For sure Walton is again a benevolent presence but Heaton is his own man - again repeated listenings reveal the compositional skill at work below the surface brilliance.
The remaining two works do not try to equal the sheer power and scope of the Heaton but they are rewarding. Hans Werner Henze's Ragtimes and Habaneras is in many ways the 'lightest' work on offer. This is light music refracted — pardon the pun — through the prism of a contemporary music idiom. So a variety of popular and Latin-American rhythms jostle with one another in passages that clash musically and harmonically - almost Ives goes to Latin America with a brass band. Given the international stature of Henze no surprise to see that this has been recorded by as formidable ensembles as the brass of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. I have heard sections of that performance online and it is predictably fine. It is important to state that the Cory Band players are every bit their equal and more importantly there is that unique 'band' sound here that is so apt. Henze wrote the work for the Grimethorpe and Black Dyke bands so I think it is fair to say that this is the ideal ensemble to play the work. There is a wit and sly humour that one would not automatically associate with Henze. Harper makes no mention in his liner but the spirit of Kurt Weill seems to hover close - right down to a near-quotation from "Mack the knife" in the closing thirty seconds ... I wonder why?
The disc closes with what is in effect "The Young Person's Guide to the Brass Band" - here titled Fireworks by Elgar Howarth. Howarth has been at the forefront of stimulating other composers to write new and challenging repertoire for band - he premiered the preceding Henze at the 1975 Proms. Fireworks is a piece very much modelled on the YPG where a narrator introduces all of the different sections of the band before bringing them all together for a rousing fugal finale. Howarth's homage to the Britten even extends to his big tune coming back in the concluding pages as a counter-melody to the counterpoint of the fugue. Again this performance cannot be faulted. The narration is supplied by Morgan Jones, a TV presenter well known in Wales. Given that the Cory Band is based in South Wales and that Jones is a long-time member of the Trelor Band (on the solo euphonium) this is an ideal match. That being said, I cannot imagine wanting to listen to this work with the integral narration many times for all his excellence. I would prefer to hear just the music, certainly for repeated listening. However, it was of real interest hearing the subtle differences between the various instruments being pointed out in the text and then demonstrated in the music.
As previously mentioned, this disc has been prepared to Doyen's usual high standards; excellent engineering, phenomenal musicianship, an attractively presented well-written liner. I know I do bang on a bit of a drum about the quality of the best brass bands and the music they play but this is a prime example. Add to that the Heaton Partita which is a powerful and impressive discovery.
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