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William WALTON (1902-1983)
The First Shoot (1936 arr. 1980) [8:52] Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Festal Brass with Blues (1983) [12:34] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Russian Funeral (1936) [6:58] John IRELAND (1879-1962)
A Downland Suite (1932) [19:00]
London Collegiate Brass/James Stobart
rec. Morley College, London, 9-10 June 1985 CRD 3444 [47:24]
Another old friend from the CRD catalogue. I have known this recording since its original release although my cassette copy is lost somewhere in my attic unheard for many years. As with most of the CRD catalogue the transfer to CD has not seen any re-ordering or adding to the pre-existing programme which results in discs of often modest length as here. Likewise, programmes or repertoire which might have been unique on first release now face competition from elsewhere. That is true of this disc too but in fact most of the programme remains individually rare and as a programme unique.
This certainly applies to the work that opens the disc: Walton's The First Shoot. Originally this was a brief ballet score for a 1936 Cochrane review to a Osbert Sitwell scenario and Frederick Ashton choreography. Walton recycled the central Hesitation Waltz in two later film scores. Then in the early 1980's he rescued the score as whole to fill in for a brass band commission for Elgar Howarth and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. This is very much the Walton of Façade - indeed for a mid-thirties score the music is rather 'old-fashioned' 20's. The only other version in the catalogue is Christopher Palmer's reworking of the band score for full orchestra as part of the Chandos Walton edition. Admirer as I am of Palmer's work I think the band original has more of a insouciant 'tang' to it which the London Collegiate Brass under James Stobart capture very well. My only concern - which applies throughout the disc is that subtle difference in timbre that is achieved by essentially orchestral brass players as opposed to their band-playing colleagues. This is heightened by the fact - as the liner acknowledges - that this recording utilises horns and trumpets instead of the saxhorns and cornets of a brass band proper. For me this has the greatest impact in the Walton and Ireland scores. The Tippett - although conceived for band is less 'coloured' by the instrumentation - the interest there lies in the work itself. Curious that the CRD liner rather baldly lists the sections of the Walton work as simply 1-5 omitting their movement titles. This is light hearted and utterly typical Walton and as such is an excellent opener. As far as I can tell there has only been one brass band recording - which I have not heard - on an old ASV disc from James Watson and the Black Dyke Mills Band.
The Tippett is the most abstract and overtly serious work here, and might be considered as a fantasy on themes from his Third Symphony. I am no brass player but to my ear - as with most Tippett - the composer makes little allowance for any complexities in the writing and the London Collegiate Brass negotiate this rather knotty and individual music confidently. Worth mentioning here the engineering from veteran engineer Bob Auger. In the mid 1980's, brass recordings were very much dominated by the Phillip Jones Ensemble on Decca. Decca favoured a more overtly bold and upfront soundstage. Auger places this ensemble slightly further back into the acoustic of the Morley College Hall which gives the sound a more natural blend if losing some of the sheer excitement that those Decca discs could generate. The central blues is impressively played here although again I do regret the mellowing influence the cornet tone would have brought. Again, for a substantial work by an important composer this is surprisingly under-represented in the catalogue - an old (early 90's) Collins disc from the Wallace Collection seems to be the main - only? - competition. Interesting as always to hear the recognisable 'voice' of a composer emerging in an unexpected genre.
Britten's Russian Funeral is an early work written for a London Labour Choral Union concert in 1936. Britten makes use of the same Russian song that commemorates the funerals of the 1905 victims of the massacre outside the Winter Palace that Shostakovich wove into his 11th Symphony. As with many of his early works Britten shows a remarkable astuteness in his handling of instrumental textures as well a natural theatricality in the pacing of the work from sombre opening through bitter muted fanfares and a return to the heavy dirge at the end. Simon Rattle included this work as a coupling to his recording of Shostakovich's 4th Symphony with the CBSO and this is the one work presented here that is for symphonic brass. The work also featured on a Phillip Jones recital of British Music for Brass and again the difference between the engineering aesthetics of CRD and Decca are instantly audible. The two performances are all but identical in length. Phillip Jones and his group of brass all-stars produce a more moulded, dare one say slicker, performance which is wonderfully impressive. Somehow Stobart and his college players give the music an extra weary weight which makes even more musical impact.
John Ireland's A Downland Suite completes the disc. This is the best-known - a relative term - work here although curiously few recordings of the original brass band versions are in the current catalogue. Its string orchestra incarnation seems more popular on disc at least with other wind band versions and excerpts for organ and piano extending the options. Again, the London Collegiate Brass give a good and committed performance of this attractive work but alongside for example Geoffrey Brand with the European Winds Wind Band version the outer movements in particular lack some virility and dynamism [Brand takes just 5:00 for the opening Prelude to Stobart's 5:44]. The second movement Elegy is the heart of the work and gets a performance of gentle dignity here - but wouldn't those cornets just have mellowed out the tone to even greater effect?
So overall, a collection that has retained its interest and value in the thirty or so years since its original release. As with most of the CRD catalogue no attempt has been made to update or expand the liner; accordingly Tippett’s death in 1998 is not acknowledged. These problems notwithstanding, it is adequately sufficient without being at all elaborate. As mentioned, Bob Auger's engineering is understatedly good and realistic. My personal preference is for the sound of a real brass band playing the 'right' instruments but that is not to detract from the quality of the musicianship on show here.