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Edward GREGSON (b. 1945)
Fanfare for a New Era (2017) [2:48]
Symphony in two movements (2012, new version 2014) [18:06]
Three Dance Episodes (1974) [9:21]
Fanfare for PL (2014) [0:52]
Quintet for Brass (1967) [10:45]
Aria for Philip (2000) [4:28]
Music of the Angels (2000, new version 2015) [16:37]
London Brass/Rumon Gamba, Edward Gregson
rec. 2019, Henri Wood Hall, London
CHANDOS CHAN20127 [65:20]

Edward Gregson played in brass bands when he was a teenager, so he was inevitably drawn into that world from quite early on and has been composing ever since for that medium but also for wind orchestras and for more traditional orchestral forces, whereas some of his works, his concertos in particular, exist in versions for brass band, wind orchestra and orchestra.

As can be seen from the above details, the works recorded in this new Chandos release devoted to some of his pieces for symphonic brass and percussion span more than sixty years of his composing life. Not all the works recorded here are for symphonic brass and percussion as the title of this selection has it, but all the pieces are scored for different brass ensembles and the earliest here, the Quintet for Brass of 1967, is the one that was to bring some broader exposure for the young composer. It is laid out in two movements which form a remarkably balanced piece of music, full of youthful energy and displaying a formidable flair for brass instruments and brass writing gained, no doubt, from the composer's experience as brass band player. The music is already highly personal, though one may feel the shadow of Malcolm Arnold whose own Brass Quintet No.1 of 1961 hovering over some of the music but, frankly, there is nothing to complain about. Gregson's Brass Quintet is a remarkably assured piece that earned him a firm place onto the musical scene. Incidentally, it was the first of his pieces published by Novello who are still his main publisher.

A number of the other pieces recorded here may be regarded as occasional and written for various events often linked to friends of the composer. A notable exception, though, is the beautiful, mostly sombre, Aria for Philip written for the memorial concert for Philip Jones at the Royal Northern College of Music and revised for the present recording. This short but moving piece pays a deeply felt homage to a musician who early on had appreciated Gregson's music – for example, the brass quintet which he often toured with his own PJBE. The piece briefly quotes from the brass quintet.

Another work which differs slightly from the collective title (Symphonic Brass and Percussion) is the delightful Three Dance Episodes scored for brass octet (three trumpets, horn, two trombones, euphonium and tuba). This is a lively work in three short, neatly characterised movements, i.e. a slow central Andante framed by two energetic, toccata-like outer movements.

As Paul Hindmarsh rightly observes in his informative notes, there are very few full-fledged symphonies for brass ensemble and he mentions two which readily come to mind, i.e. Gunther Schuller's 'twelve-tone' Symphony of 1950 and Malcolm Arnold's gritty, often demanding Symphony for Brass Instruments Op.123 of 1978. Gregson's own Symphony in two movements, composed in 2012 for the National Youth Brass Bands of Great Britain and Wales and revised in a new version for symphonic brass in 2014, is quite a substantial work modelled on Prokofiev's Second Symphony in that it consists of two movements: a concise sonata-form Toccata and a long theme and variations providing for some considerable textural variety while preserving some overall coherence. From the choral-like theme, the music unfolds throughout different moods leading into the last variation ending “Triumphantly!”. Gregson's symphony is a substantial piece of music - awfully demanding but ultimately utterly rewarding. Incidentally, this is its second recording, as it appeared on a Doyen CD that I have not heard so I cannot say whether it is of this version or not.

The final work heard here is the one that gives this release its collective title. In 1998 Gregson was commissioned by Martyn Brabbins to write a short concert opener, with choir, to mark his debut as Music Director of the Huddersfield Choral Society. The resulting piece … and the seven trumpets ...was first performed in Huddersfield Town Hall with organ, the brass section of the BBC Philharmonic. The following year Gregson was commissioned by the Cheshire based Foden's Brass Band for a work to mark its centenary in 2000. The composer turned to the first portion of the Huddersfield piece as the basis for an ambitious celebratory work entitled The Trumpets of the Angels. In 2015, he created a new performing edition, without organ, for the Black Dyke Band. The material of the Black Dyke version was still reworked and became Music of the Angels for symphonic brass and percussion. This is yet another substantial work full of imaginative writing for brass and overflowing with strongly expressive material. Music of the Angels is a tribute to Olivier Messiaen whose own Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) might be called to mind, were it not for Gregson's music which is miles away from the French composer's granitic and often repetitive block writing. This mighty work and the Symphony in two movements undoubtedly stand out as peaks in Gregson's output and definitely deserve wider exposure.

These works recorded in the presence of the composer, who also conducts a few of them, are all played with formidable commitment, assurance and musicality, and serve the music at its best. The recording is superb and the informative notes by Paul Hindmarsh are a further asset. In short, this release will certainly appeal to all admirers of Gregson's music and to all those who relish brilliant and assured brass playing but also to all those who simply love strongly expressive music, whatever the medium for which it is written.

Hubert Culot

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