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Onyx Brass/John Wilson
rec Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 2017
Reviewed in SACD stereo

This really is a superb disc - a veritable box of delights or a horn(!) of plenty. For sure I cannot imagine sitting down to listen to fifty eight brief fanfares in one sitting - even for review purposes – but this is a collection distinguished by the brilliance of the music it contains and the exceptional manner in which it is played.

The Onyx brass quintet are joined by friends and colleagues to facilitate the performance of a remarkable range of works. Within the seemingly limited description of ‘fanfare’ this ranges from Bliss’s High Sheriff’s Fanfare for just a pair of trumpets up to Arnold’s powerful Festival Fanfare for five horns, six trumpets, five trombones, tuba, cymbals and timpani.

I find this collection to be a particular joy - for me it ticks the boxes of so many individual passions and fascinations. Over-riding them all is a love of British music in particular – including ‘light’ music – and the sound of massed brass. Add to that a completist’s obsession with the music of Bax, Bliss, Arnold and Ketèlbey - and others!, and the appeal of this disc for me is clear. As a concept, this is not a programme that has been offered often before. The closest example is an old RCA LP latterly on Chandos from the Locke Brass Consort conducted by James Stobart titled Fanfare – British Music for Symphonic Brass Ensemble. This older collection still sounds very fine indeed and with little overlap of repertoire makes the perfect companion disc. Unsurprisingly the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble dipped their collective toes into this repertoire but usually as a brief filler to other more substantial works so Bliss, Arnold and Bax all feature with the older ensemble but again with little repetition. Interestingly, conductor John Wilson chooses a much brighter and alert tempo for the second of Bax’s Royal Wedding Fanfares than Jones did – Wilson’s tempo feels much more appropriate, Jones’ weary speed a rare mis-judgement.

Another fascination for on this disc is just how individual and characteristic the different works sound. Bliss and Arnold are accepted masters of the form, instantly able to create a heraldic or ceremonial mood yet at the same time voice their brass group writing in a way that is unmistakeably their own. According to Richard Bratby’s excellent liner, Bliss contributed some forty fanfares to the literature from the glorious and grand Antiphonal Fanfare for three Brass Choirs (not recorded here) to the aforementioned simple but strikingly effective High Sheriff’s Fanfare. Aptness is again a recurring feature of the writing of all the composers. Arnold’s Festive Fanfare, although written for a large ensemble, was composed with youthful players in mind so it is as heroic as it is simpler and less wide- ranging than many on display here. Likewise, what a delight to hear Herbert Howells ear-tickling Fanfare for Schools, written for broadcast as part of a radio talk about instruments of the orchestra. Remarkably, the performance here is probably the first time it has been played since – an omission that hopefully this recording will help reverse.

Indeed, the main and considerable value of this disc will be to alert performers and ensembles to the very existence of these pieces and hopefully by creating a library of performing materials will allow wider dissemination of this music. Perhaps at this moment worth a major vote of thanks to the librarian/researcher for the ensemble, responsible for putting this programme together. I see that the Haydn Wood Six Fanfares are transcribed, one of Ketèlbey’s -Fanfare for the Royal Artillery, has been transcribed, presumably from a recording (as an aside, I was pleased to see the leading Ketèlbey expert Tom McKanna receive a credit), and Ba’'s Hosting at Dawn is arranged by the ever-excellent Baxian, Graham Parlett. Another particular value of this disc is the way in which music by nominally ‘serious’ composers is placed alongside that of ‘light’ composers. This division of serious and light is spurious at the best of times - anyone from Shostakovich to Elgar could move between these theoretically distinct genres with ease. The reality is that Coates was a college contemporary of Bax, Haydn Wood’s ‘serious’ violin concerto has been re-evaluated in recent years and the likes of Frederic Curzon deserve objective reassessment. Of course, conductor John Wilson’s earliest discs did lie within the field of ‘light’ music so it is good to see him returning to those roots and lavishing as much care on the less well known works and composers as he does on the famous ones.

I suspect Malcolm Arnold could write a good fanfare in his sleep. Probably as a consequence of his compositional facility derived from his film-scoring days as well as his natural affinity for brass, all five presented items here are little gems. But listen to the way in the Railway fanfare [track 5] he takes the dig-idy-dum rhythm of a railway track and builds it into a simple fanfare figuration right down to a slowing up into a station at the end. A neat little compositional conceit, executed with easy skill by the Onyx Brass players. The selection of eleven Bliss fanfares is remarkably diverse and again I marvel at the way the composer develops a memorable little piece from a simple idea. The Homage to Shakespeare develops a musical phrase from a John Wilbye madrigal into a slightly faux-Elizabethan but beautifully dignified ceremonial march. But we know already the skill of Arnold and Bliss and their acceptance of the genre. Michael Tippett is not a composer you imagine enjoying the formality of the fanfare but both his examples are typically angular and demanding. Given Eric Coates’ remarkable melodic facility his two very brief examples - written as part of a National Savings drive in World War II - are relatively generic and disappointing, certainly when put alongside the Haydn Wood Fanfare that follows it, the 4th of the group of Six Fanfares has a very distinct echo of his Horse Guards March that became famous on BBC radio as the theme for Down Your Way.

Good too to hear Imogen Holst’s music being heard in its own right and not ‘just because she was the daughter of a famous father. Her Fanfare for Thaxted is the second most extended single piece on the disc and is more of a miniature tone-picture than traditional fanfare. Holst assisted Britten for some years; I wonder if the echoes I heard of both Gloriana and even the Serenade in the following Fanfare for the Grenadier Guards are wishful thinking by me or unconscious acknowledgements by her! Her Leiston Suite is another work written for young performers and again the way in which musical interest is not compromised by a lower level of technical difficulty is a great tribute to her compositional skill.

It was good programming to juxtapose the Holst next to the set of Ketèlbey’s more traditional approach to the form. Ketèlbey was another composer who seemed able to write a good tune on demand. None of the seven presented here have the harmonic piquancy of other examples recorded here but they are all rattlingly stirring. No surprise, for a composer who could compose musical-switches with ease, so that he slips in various passing references to everything from ‘Hearts of Oak’ to the ‘Marseillaise’. I particularly liked his Fanfare for a Ceremonial Occasion although the liner is not able to tie it to any specific occasion; the way he tosses phrases from the trumpet group to the trombones is as simple as it is effective. Effectiveness is so often the watchword of the light music composers so no real surprise that they can combine brevity and appropriateness at the same time; the third of the Curzon works, rather prosaically titled Fanfare No.4 from Six Brilliant Fanfares is a case in point, being 28 seconds of pure pageantry. The Elizabeth Lutyens’ Fanfare for a Festival stretches the idea of a fanfare again and hers is the longest single work here, running just shy of the four- and-a-half-minute mark. This was written for York University in 1975 and – it has to be said – is very individual, even if not really that festive. But the closely written harmonies are pungently effective and in the context of this collection of musical nibbles it is rather nice to have a more substantial and gritty work by way of contrast.

Collecting the bulk of Bax’s fanfares into one place is rather exciting for me. Bax wrote so effectively for orchestral bras; again the works here are very typical both in their instrumental voicings and side slipping harmonies, even if they do represent little chips from the master’s block. The second of the Show Business fanfares is quite unlike any other Bax I have ever heard, right down to the walking bass line. Certainly Bax’s psyche was not as suited, especially in later years, to the ‘composing on demand’ requirements of his post as Master of the King’s Music. But that said, the aforementioned Second Royal Wedding Fanfare somehow combines Baxian fingerprints with the need for something regal and ceremonial. The wartime Salute to Sydney is another completely unknown gem. And finally, with fanfare number 58, the programme closes with Joseph Horovitz’s Graduation Fanfare No.2 which in many ways sums up and continues the tradition of all the preceding works.

John Wilson proves himself to be a deft and intelligent interpreter of this music which he allows to push on in flamboyant display or swagger with burnished grandeur as the mood demands. The playing of the expanded Onyx brass is of exactly the right kind of easy virtuosity and blazing brilliance. As mentioned, the liner is full of useful and valuable information about both composers and music. St Jude-on-the-hill is an ideal recording venue lending the ensemble richness without undue resonance. The Chandos SA-CD 5.0 engineering (I listened in SA-CD stereo) is very good, being truthful without any added excess glamour. For admirers of British brass writing and performing this will be a reference disc for many years to come. Yes, of course, this is something of a niche programme – and thank you to Chandos for filling that niche, but it is certainly one of the highlights of my listening year to date.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John France
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Fanfare for Schools (1943) [0:52]
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006) Festival Fanfare (1961) [1:16]; Kingston Fanfare (1959) [0:33]; A Richmond Fanfare (1957) [0:33]; Railway Fanfare (1975) [1:32]; Fanfare for a Royal Occasion (1956) [1:17]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Fanfare to Precede the National Anthem (1960) [0:32]; National Anthem [0:55]; The Right of the Line (1965) [1:26]; Fanfare for the Princess Anne (1973) [0:59]; High Sheriff’s Fanfare (1963) [0:28]; A Salute to Painting (1954) [1:20]; Research Fanfare (1973) [1:32]; Peace Fanfare (1944) [0:38]; Let the People Sing (1960) [0:22]; Fanfare for a Dignified Occasion (1938) [0:28]; Fanfare for Heroes (1930) [1:46]; Homage to Shakespeare (1973) [1:07]; Fanfare (1944) [1:17]
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Fanfare No. 3 (1953) [0:57]; The Wolf Trap Fanfare (1980) [1:09]
Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946) Fanfare (1921) [0:22]
Eric COATES (1886-1957) Two Fanfares (c. 1943) [1:02]
Haydn WOOD (1882-1959) Fanfare No. 3 (1938) [0:47]; Six Fanfares (1945) [2:25]
Imogen HOLST (1907-1984) Fanfare for Thaxted (1966) [3:02]
Fanfare for the Grenadier Guards (1966) [2:25]; Leiston Suite (1967) [6:13]
Albert W. KETÈLBEY (1875-1959) Coronation Fanfare (1937/1952) [0:50] Fanfares Nos 1 & 2 for a Naval Occasion (1943) [1:34]; Fanfare for Victory (1944) [1:17]; Fanfare for the Royal Artillery (1944) [0:54]; Short Fanfare for the Air Force (published 1953) [0:33]; Fanfare for a Ceremonial Occasion (1935) [0:57]
Sir Hamilton HARTY (1879-1941) Fanfare (1921) [0:21];
Frederic CURZON (1899-1973) Fanfare Nos 4-6 (1938) [1:31]
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983) Fanfare for a Festival (1975) [4:18]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Hosting at Dawn (1921) [0:36]; Fanfare for a Cheerful Occasion (1930) [0:51]; Two Fanfares for ‘Show Business’ (1951) [1:21]; Royal Wedding Fanfares (1947) [2:19]; Salute to Sydney (1943) [1:11]
Joseph HOROVITZ (b. 1926) Graduation Fanfare No. 2 (2013) [2:09]



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