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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams on Brass
Flourish for Brass (1939)
English Folk Songs Suite (1923)
Sea Songs (1924)
Henry the Fifth (1933 or 1934)
The Truth from Above
Prelude on Rhosymedre (1920)
Suite from 49th Parallel
Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes (1954)
Tuba Concerto in F minor (1954)
Variations for Brass Band (1957)
Ross Knight (tuba)
Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse & Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2021/22, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, UK

I think this may be a first for me: in over 20 years of writing for MusicWeb International I don’t recall a previous opportunity to review a disc of brass band music. It’s taken the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth for me to break that duck.

The excellent booklet essay accompanying this disc has been authored jointly by Paul Hindmarsh and Phillip Littlemore – I am indebted to their notes for much of the background information in this review. Right at the start of their essay they point out that VW was a “late convert” to brass bands. In fact, only a few of the works on the Tredegar Town Band’s programme were expressly written for brass band and, with one exception, those date from the 1950s.

I think it will be easiest if I comment on the pieces in the order in which they appear on the disc. Flourish for Brass was composed for military band in 1939. It seems that it received only a solitary performance and it remained unpublished. In 1971 VW’s long serving assistant, Roy Douglas – to whom we owe so much – disinterred the manuscript score from among the composer’s papers in the British Library. We hear it now in an arrangement for brass band by Phillip Littlemore. It’s only short, playing for under two minutes, but it provides a stirring curtain raiser.

English Folk Songs Suite is much better known, but mainly it is familiar in either its original scoring for military band or in the skilful orchestration made by Gordon Jacob in 1924. Apparently, a brass band version was made in 1956. This was the work of Frank Wright but he transposed the music down a fourth. Phillip Littlemore’s new version, performed here, restores the original keys. I must say that, while I like the Jacob orchestration, I’ve always preferred to hear this attractive suite dressed in its military band uniform; somehow, the colours, with the mixture of woodwinds and brass, seem just right for the music. However, the brass band version gives the original scoring a close run for its money. In this performance, I love the mellow sound as the band plays the tune ‘Pretty Caroline’ during the first movement, while the third movement, combining four folk songs in a march, makes for a cracking finale, especially when played, as here, with such precision and discipline.

I didn’t know until now that VW originally conceived the English Folk Songs Suite as a four-movement work. The second movement was discarded after the first performance but was then published separately in 1924 as Sea Songs. It’s another march movement, based on four folk songs with maritime associations. It’s here played in a version by Phillip Littlemore. The annotators describe it as “bright and breezy” – and with good reason.

With Henry the Fifth we come to VW’s first specific composition for brass band. It was composed in 1933 or 1934 – it’s not clear why – but it doesn’t appear that it was performed during the composer’s lifetime. According to the notes, VW promised Sir Arthur Bliss in 1942 that he would “look it over and if I think it good enough will send it for your consideration”. We can only presume that the piece didn’t pass muster with VW because nothing more was heard of it until Howard Snell unearthed it in the 1970s, a discovery which led to the publication of an edition by Roy Douglas in 1979. The piece celebrates the Battle of Agincourt and much use is made, inter alia, of The Agincourt Song. I wouldn’t say it’s top-drawer VW but it has a great deal to offer and its suppression – whether intended or accidental – by the composer seems unwarranted. It receives a fizzing performance from Ian Porthouse and the Tredegar Town Band.

This is an appropriate point to mention that Ian Porthouse, originally a cornet player, has been associated with the Band since 1995 when he became their Principal Cornet. He became their conductor in 2008 and since then he has led them to a host of significant competition successes. He conducts most of the music on this disc but he cedes the baton to a guest conductor for some of the pieces. This is Martyn Brabbins. I don’t think I knew that some of Brabbins’ earliest musical experiences were as a young player – euphonium and trombone – with Towcester Studio Brass Band; so, he’s well versed in the medium.

Brabbins is on the rostrum for The Truth from Above and Prelude on Rhosymedre. The former appears in an arrangement by Paul Hindmarsh; the sound of a brass band is well-suited to this hauntingly beautiful tune and the Tredegar players show great sensitivity. How appropriate that a Welsh band should give us Prelude on Rhosymedre. This, of course, was one of three organ Preludes, all based on Welsh hymns, that VW composed in 1920. The gently musing Rhosymedre has always been my favourite among the set. Here, it’s given in a lovely version for brass band which Paul Hindmarsh made in 2008. Jumping ahead slightly, it’s sensible to consider next the Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes. This was VW’s first published work specifically for brass band. He wrote it, at his own suggestion, in 1954, for the International Staff Band of the Salvation Army. The piece is founded upon a selection of Welsh hymn tunes, all woven together skilfully. The notes describe the arrangement as “uncomplicated” and I suppose that’s a fair verdict, though VW exploits the band medium to the full.

In between these examples of Welsh hymnody, we hear Suite from 49th Parallel. This suite has been devised by Paul Hindmarsh and arranged by Phillip Littlemore. It’s important to say that this suite is nowhere near as extensive as the one compiled – for full orchestra – by Stephen Hogger (review). Hogger’s compilation plays for nearly 39 minutes on the Chandos recording while the Hindmarsh/Littlemore suite takes 14:05 here. It matters not; the present brass band suite is highly effective in its own right and it includes several key elements from VW’s 1941 film score. The selected elements have been well chosen in two respects: firstly, the various elements give good musical variety and, secondly, the various episodes offer plenty of opportunities for the band to display different aspects of their collective technique. In the closing moments we hear the famous Prelude. It appears quietly, played with great warmth, and then the theme gradually expands to a glowing, confident conclusion. I enjoyed this very much and I admired greatly the skill of the Tredegar Town Band.

The Band is joined by Ross Knight for the Tuba Concerto. Knight is the Solo Tuba player with l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This concerto is another example – along with such works as the Eighth and Ninth symphonies – of VW’s willingness, even in his eighties, to branch out in new directions, especially when it came to matters of scoring. He seemed to delight in devising new combinations of instrumental colourings. The concerto is given here in an arrangement by Phillip Littlemore. In some ways I still haven’t made up my mind about this arrangement. One loses the orchestral colours – though the different colourings that a brass band can provide offer some compensation. I think the loss comes from not hearing, in particular, the contrast between the solo instrument and, at various points in the score, woodwind or stringed instruments. There were instances in the performance when it seemed to me that the admirable soloist was insufficiently differentiated from the accompaniment. However, concerns over any lack of contrast are to a large extent set aside thanks to the wonderfully responsive way in which the Tredegar players deliver their parts. There is no heaviness here – except on the rare occasions when VW expects it – rather, the band members show terrific musicianship and sensitivity, observing dynamics scrupulously so that their soloist never gets overwhelmed. Ross Knight is excellent, especially in the soulful lyricism of the central Romanza movement. He also plays with great athleticism in the finale.

Martyn Brabbins returns to the podium for the final offering: VW’s masterpiece for the brass band world. His Variations were composed as the test piece for the National Brass Band Championships in 1957. In accepting this invitation, VW was following in the footsteps of several distinguished colleagues, including Elgar (Severn Suite, 1930) and – how this must have pleased him - his great friend, Holst (A Moorside Suite, 1928). It’s a substantial piece in which the theme is followed by eleven variations. In this performance it plays for 11:49. As befits its purpose, it gives every section of the band a thorough work out – and a chance to shine. The Tredegar band rises to and surmounts every challenge set them by VW. The Variations may not have the immediate appeal of Holst’s superb Moorside Suite but it’s a very considerable piece nonetheless and this highly accomplished performance shows it to best advantage. I should add that the present performance uses a new scholarly edition by Phillip Littlemore which irons out a lot of discrepancies between VW’s manuscript and the previous published edition.

This is a very important addition to the Vaughan Williams discography. It may “only” contain three works specifically written for brass band, but thanks to the skill and inventiveness of Paul Hindmarsh and Phillip Littlemore some other works, notably the pieces for military band, have been given a new and very valid lease of life. I enjoyed the music greatly. As for the performances, I was deeply impressed by the virtuosity of the Tredegar Town Band. Their attention to detail is prodigious – the band has a huge dynamic range – and the playing is always disciplined and precise. Engineer Steve Portnoi has recorded them expertly; the sound has great presence, amplitude and impact. All sections of the band are well balanced and can be heard very clearly.

I’ve already alluded to the excellence of the documentation: it’s fully up to Albion’s usual very high standards.

This is a most enterprising and enjoyable addition to the Albion catalogue.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month) ~ John France

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