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Nigel CLARKE (b. 1960)
Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock (2016, rev 2019) [15:22]
Swift Severn’s Flood (2009) [14:35]
Mysteries of the Horizon (2012) [21:04]
Earthrise (2010) [18:00]
Harmen Vanhoorne (solo cornet), Grimethorpe Colliery Band/Nigel Clarke, David Thornton, Sandy Smith
rec. 2019, The Foundry, Sheffield, UK
NAXOS 8.574097 [69:14]

Naxos and Toccata Classics have done much for Nigel Clarke’s imaginatively conceived and fastidiously crafted music in the last few years. By now each has issued a couple of portrait discs dedicated to this versatile composer, whilst single works of his crop up in anthologies to be found among the catalogues of both labels and elsewhere. Earthrise has previously featured on a Naxos miscellany (8.573184) of wind band music in the composer’s own transcription (from the brass band original) and played by Clarke’s most enthusiastic American collaborators, the exceptional Middle Tennessee State University Wind Ensemble under Reed Thomas; meanwhile on Toccata the same group accompanies the Belgian soloist Harmen Vanhoorne in an arrangement of another of the brass band originals on the present issue, the cornet concerto Mysteries of the Horizon which Rob Barnett enjoyed a couple of years ago - review. Both types of ensemble have their adherents and Clarke’s pieces work equally effectively for both. Brass Band afficionados will certainly want the new disc regardless as it marks the Naxos debut of the mighty Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Clarke has produced a number of successful film and documentary scores so it is fitting that the opening item on the new disc is Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock, which proves to be less of a tribute to the great director than it is a homage to film noir in general. The ‘titles’ music settles briefly into a pulse that would not shame a Lalo Schifrin soundtrack, while the sequences of rapid repeated notes and Grimethorpe’s supremely crisp ensemble will be a treat for those who appreciate brass band virtuosity. At 3:21 a bell-tree and assorted tuned percussion launch a gentler, romantic passage, presumably alluding to the seductive charms of some doomed femme fatale. A not quite blood-curdling scream then precipitates a jagged, eventful montage of flutterings, mutes and half-light. As the booklet note suggests the melodic and harmonic stylings are not a million miles from classic Hollywood, though hearing them via the medium of a virtuosic brass band is simultaneously riveting and disconcerting. In due course the romantic theme that’s been hinted at escapes from the texture by way of a smoky, muted trumpet and inveigles itself under one’s skin, where it will remain. Thereafter a riot of police sirens, tapping keys and other subtle effects trigger a rather cartoonish passage before a final reprise of the big tune leads to a volley of false endings. Dial H for Hitchcock is a brilliant whimsy; adroitly written and spectacularly performed– a superb vehicle for the band.

Swift Severn’s Flood is inspired by an entirely different kind of action-packed drama; the bloody one-on-one fight between Edmund Mortimer and Owen Glendower to which Shakespeare refers in Act 1 of Henry IV Part 1. Clarke’s depiction is brittle, brutal and atmospheric; martial drum tattoos and eerie, howling wind effects are the order of the day. After a strange climax early on in the piece the music seems to splinter and be pulled in opposing directions – a muted slow passage relegates the drums to the far distance, an atmospheric episode which is apparently rooted in monastic chant and is subtly projected by the Grimethorpe players. It’s a piece which convincingly melds epic nobility, brute force and haunted, rainswept nocturne; the juxtaposition of contrasting moods is certainly angular but instinctive rather than jarring. Clarke’s judiciously deployed lyrical ideas fleetingly suggest Walton’s great Shakespearean scores.

The surreal paintings of René Magritte convey a powerful paradox between the inertia of the objects that inhabit them and the unlimited implications of their inter-relationships. The four movements of the cornet concerto Mysteries of the Horizon (itself the title of a Magritte picture) are each inspired by a single work. The Menaced Assassin seems to address that image’s rich tension between explicit threat and mystery, hence forceful tutti passages form a backdrop to quieter, more ominous materials. I prefer the sharpness of this brass band original to Clarke’s wind band transcription; in both cases Vanhoorne emerges as a magnificent soloist, thrilling in his florid, gymnastic runs and in the mini-cadenza prior to the movement’s conclusion. The Dominion of Light is more nuanced, muted and gloomy in mood. Bells and glockenspiel prick its surfaces and imply elusive half-light and approaching darkness that never fully materialises. Clarke’s music is rich in suggestion. In The Flavour of Tears an extended, slow-burning melody slithers among an undergrowth of rather modal harmony and morphs into something lucid, memorable and even tragic – it’s powerfully translated by Vanhoorne and reinforces Clarke’s reputation as a composer who is led by the image (this is true of all four works on this disc) to produce substantial music of lasting power. The Discovery of Fire (somewhat inevitably for this piece, that’s the name of Magritte’s notorious image of a burning tuba) is the most virtuosic panel of all. After a brief, rapid declamation, Vanhoorne conveys Clarke’s flight-of-the-bumblebee-edge-of-the-seat solo writing with exemplary clarity against an ever-shifting collage of brass band texture. The Discovery of Fire is thrilling, effectively a concerto for brass band which happens to be led by a solo cornet.

I listened to the wind band arrangement of Earthrise on the Reed Thomas Tennessee disc and felt the broader colour palette Clarke deploys to be eminently suitable for a tone-poem inspired by spaceflight; the higher registers involved are imaginatively harnessed to evoke both speed and ethereality. But the phenomenal virtuosity involved in this new Grimethorpe account is stunning, and epitomises the long-standing tradition of the band’s enthusiastic, almost competitive engagement with contemporary music. The opening gesture of Earthrise is shattering; explosive, jagged power-chords, tinged with bells and vibraphone proffer no concession whatsoever to melody or easy atmospherics, though the calmer, more lilting textures that follow hint at the extraordinary evocation of weightlessness to come (from 5:34). As ever in Clarke’s music for this medium, his tone-painting is of a very high order as shards of the recurring theme float variously around the sound capsule against a static background, in time this yields to a more melodic, even romantic episode which is scored for the full ensemble. From 14:20 the return to Earth is characterised by hurtling, spiralling figures, a kind of ordered free-fall before a huge drum tattoo prefigures re-entry and splashdown –and a spectacular bells-and-whistles finish.

Nigel Clarke’s music for band is as superbly crafted and serious in intent as his output for other forces; in my view he is certainly up there with Robert Simpson and John McCabe as an example of a first-class musician who enthusiastically (and instinctively) seizes the unique sonic opportunities offered by this medium. On the evidence of this disc the respect seems mutual; the Grimethorpe players (variously directed here by David Thornton and Sandy Smith as well as the composer) perform as though their lives depended on it. The Naxos recording (made in the sympathetic acoustic of The Foundry in Sheffield) is top notch, exuding biting clarity from first note to last. Although it’s the latest disc in the label’s occasional ‘Brass Band Classics’ strand, I implore non-specialist listeners to take the plunge.

Richard Hanlon

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