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War Memorials - Music for Brass Band
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Occasional Overture [7:42]
Robin HOLLOWAY (b. 1943)
Men Marching (War Memorial No. 1) Op. 50, no. 1 [11:11]
From Hills and Valleys (War Memorial No. 2) Op. 50, no. 2 (1981-82) [13:20]
Lucy PANKHURST (b. 1981)
Voices (In Memoriam) [10:43]
John McCABE (1939-2015)
The Maunsell Forts (Nocturne for brass band) [16:29]
Diversions after Benjamin Britten and St. Edmundsbury Fanfare
Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse
Cory Band/Phillip Harper; Robert Childs
rec. 23 January 2016, Ysgol Gyfun Rhydywaun, Aberdare, Wales (Occasional Overture, Voices (In Memoriam, Diversions); July 2016, Parc Hall, Cwm-Parc, Wales (Holloway); BBC Radio 3, Royal Northern College of Music Festival of Brass, Manchester. January 2010 (McCabe)
NMC NMCD226 [79:15]

Britain's musical world embraces the brass band movement. This disc mirrors that part of the band-world that overlaps classical music. Here two bands and three conductors turn in artistic and technically virtuoso performances of British works with a war-remembrance theme.

Britten starts this capacity disc with the Occasional Overture in an arrangement by a man who has quietly and with inspiration worked at the brass band and wind-band quarry face. Paul Hindmarsh, who is also the Frank Bridge expert, turns in a bejewelled display piece full of ear-engaging details. The overture was written for the inauguration of the BBC Third Programme in 1946. It has been recorded in its original orchestral guise by Steuart Bedford and Simon Rattle.

More of Britten later. For now we turn, at long last, to two brass band pieces bound up in the Great War: Robin Holloway's two War Memorials. It has been a long time since I last heard them: radio broadcasts in 1982-83 by Fairey Engineering under Howard Williams (From Hills and Valleys) and Yorkshire Imperial Band/John Pryce-Jones (Men Marching). They are of about concert overture length but feel like tone poems that happen to have been written for a brass band including drums. The writing is no doubt testing but these pieces are not about the sometimes substance-challenged competition world. Each is often benevolently dominated by a steady marching tread. The composer tells us that they commemorate WWI from the soldier's stance with both titles derived from poems by Charles Sorley who was killed in action in 1915. Each score is prefaced by an extract from Sorley's poetry. There's a dignified elegiac feeling to them. Men Marching broods and growls rather than roars and is the first of two War Memorials for brass band. From Hills and Valleys takes the form of an Introduction and an Allegro with a more varied emotional landscape than Men Marching. Note the jazzily mordant brass stabs towards the work's close. There's also a gripping Mars-like tension coupled with an exuberantly heroic close that does not betray what has gone before. Both titles also suggest a link to the tragic pastorals of A.E. Housman. These are fluently emotional works that confide with dignity and do so no matter how appalling the historical backdrop. They are the more effective for that. It is good to have them in such evidently fine performances and recordings.

Lucy Pankhurst's Voices (In Memoriam) starts with the recorded sound of booted men marching in perfectly uncanny unison. There is then a narration: a 1915 letter home to his mother from Sir Peter Hulse. It's touching in its understatement. This serves as a very brief prelude to a rolling and glowing Christmas carol atmosphere. Gradually this joy-implicit aura is dispelled as echoing and clashing fanfares take prominence before the murmur of carols flows back with the tide. It's a very fine piece which ends with the gentle chirping of recorded birdsong.

The late John McCabe's Maunsell Forts is declared as a Nocturne for brass band. Guy Maunsell's tetrapod anti-aircraft towers stand off the North Kent coast. They are a relic of the Second World War. The Nocturne is the last of his works for brass. He was no stranger to the medium and there are ten works in total. This piece is, as expected, masterly and atmospheric, brilliant and imposing. Variations in dynamic are sharp as a razor and kaleidoscopically-varied. Several sections seem vividly to evoke fast-report gunfire. Maunsell Forts would go well with Robert Simpson's spiritedly inventive pieces for the medium: Energy and Volcano.

Back to Britten for a piece that presents elements of his St. Edmundsbury Fanfare four times and intersperses those episodes with short pieces by Lucy Pankhurst (Prelude – His Depth), Simon Dobson (Scherzo – His Vitality), Paul McGhee (March – His Sympathy) and Gavin Higgins (Toccata – His Skill). The Pankhurst is a most beautiful meditation, coaxing and calming. The Dobson is a delightfully energetic romp, a solar flare of a piece with a slightly Arnoldian 'taste'. McGhee's chapter is not so much the march it declares itself to be as a dark and sinister garden with Britten's pacifism voiced by the flugelhorn. Clinks and groans emanate from the unwelcoming undergrowth. The Higgins finale flaunts its panache with a series of flourishes. These take in allusions to Britten's operas: Grimes is to the fore. It ends with a resoundingly crashing scree-fall. This assembled piece works well and defies its disparate composing sources. I suspect Paul Hindmarsh has had a hand in securing such a through-composed feel.

Three engineers and three venues, yet the sound is uniformly healthy with plenty of pure transients and a well founded bass. The results match the performances which feel uniformly convinced and convincing despite two brass bands and three conductors. The graphic design decisions by Francois Hall throughout the booklet and insert are a complete success. They make intelligent and beautiful use of the detail of a stained glass window at Kettlewell Church in the Yorkshire Dales.

The liner-notes tread with unerring skill the line between the appetite for information and overload.

I don't give much for my chances but perhaps NMC could be persuaded to produce a CD of the brass band marches, tone poems and overtures of Maurice Johnstone (1900-1976). They're well worth it and a Johnstone edition is long overdue.

Rob Barnett



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