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2003 Spring Brass Band Festival

The 83rd Grand Shield
May 3rd
Winter Gardens, Blackpool

Test Piece Reviews


4BR casts its eye over the three test pieces that have been chosen for this years contests.


Tallis Variations - Philip Sparke

Tallis Variations was written for the 2000 European Brass Band Championships, which were held at Symphony Hall Birmingham in the May of that year, and which were won by the Yorkshire Building Society Band conducted by David King.

Philip Sparke has produced a wonderfully musical piece that since it’s contesting debut has become a favourite piece for both players and audiences alike. It is not technically the hardest work from the pen of the composer and certainly not the hardest work bands at the Grand Shield would have had to tackle in the past few years either, but it remains a very stern test of the basics of quality brass band playing. Rumours have persisted that perhaps the organisers made the wrong choice for the Grand Shield and that they should have gone for “Paganini Variations” as a better test (denied by the organisers) but on closer inspection the piece will be a worthy test for the bands hoping to book a berth at the Open in September.

The hymn tune is course one of the most famous English tunes of all time, but it is interesting to note that this is a relatively short work from Philip Sparke as he was asked to make the piece fit a certain time criteria for the European Championships. This makes the piece something akin to a musical novella rather than a full blown musical novel and you do get the feeling that there is enough material here to have been explored in so much more depth. That isn’t to say what the composer has done isn’t good – it is a beautiful piece of writing, but the work seems a little confined. Perhaps a “Director’s Cut” from Mr Sparke may come in the future?

That being said, the bands and the audience will surely enjoy the music, whilst the adjudicators will have a heck of a task of separating the best bands if they approach the work with a high degree of musical sensitivity and understanding of what the piece is all about. This is certainly not a blood and thunder showcase, rather a sombre almost religious exploration.

The hymn tune on which the variations are based is the third of nine that Thomas Tallis wrote in 1567 as part of a psalter for the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Vaughan Williams famously used it as the basis of his “Fantasia” many years later.

After the busy and turbulent opening the first half of the theme is stated by the middle of the band. Variation 1 is based on the first two notes of the theme in the E minor tonality. Variation 2 contains a gentle but very difficult flugel solo and a varied statement of the theme in chorale form. Variation 3 starts with a series of short solos before a serene cornet melody appears. The final variation is an ebullient one, starting with cornet fanfares and evolving around a fugue like theme first heard by the euphoniums. Eventually the music from the first variation returns to herald the final statement before the music subsides and ends peacefully in the beauty of the Tallis chorale again.



Paganini Variations – Philip Wilby

Perhaps one of the greatest classic brass band compositions of all time, “Paganini Variations” was commissioned by the BBC in 1990 for the BBC Band of the Year, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and is inscribed “For Paul Hindmarsh”, the BBC producer.

The same year Harry Mortimer chose it as the test piece for the British Open Championships at the Free Trade Hall, which was of course famously won by Grimethorpe Colliery conducted by Frank Renton. The way in which it is readily accessible to the both players and audience (it is of course based on one of the world most favourite tunes) has made it one of the most popular pieces for both contest and concert stages ever but remains a fiendishly difficult test of technique and nerve for players.

The 24th Caprice has been worked, re worked and worked again and again by composers, but never until Wilby did it, for brass bands. However, Wilby took two strands – the historical and the personal and combined them together into a contemporary piece that takes us from the early 19th century and the roots of the early brass band repertoire right through to the modern day. Each of the sixteen variations explores these avenues to the full – some romantic, some sombre, others brilliant and brash, whilst the underlying theme remains intact. It is a tour de force and a piece that only the very best bands can really make shine. Plenty will give it a good go, but only the best on the day will conquer it’s musical and technical peaks. The soloists in particular have plenty to do (although interestingly the cadenza section was written as an optional section by the composer) whilst every section of the band will be stretched by the demands placed upon them.

Even though the piece has been played by nearly all the bands here at some time, the piece remains fresh and uplifting both to perform and listen to. It also remains a great test piece.



Tournament for Brass – Eric Ball

Written by Eric Ball for use at the 1954 British Open, “Tournament for Brass” is something of a hidden gem from the pen of our greatest composer. On that day, the Munn and Felton Band won under the direction of the great Stanley Boddington off the number 1 draw against 18 other bands – something that has never been done since at the contest, so perhaps history may repeat itself here this year.

The piece has surfaced a few times over the years – notably at the Grand Shield contests in 1975 and 1981 which was won by the Leyland Band conducted by Richard Evans and also at Pontins in both 1983 and 1991 when it was used in the Second Section. It is though a much more difficult piece to make come off than you would think and is a worthy test of the bands here.

The three movement work is of its time – Eric Ball was quite conservative in his musical architecture and construction so the work is easy on both the ear and as a technical challenge to the players and MD. The first movement is entitled “Trios and Duets” and the composer explores both to the full right from the start. The interesting point to note though is that the opening although marked Allegro ma non troppo is not a up and at ‘em sort of opening to a the piece at all. In fact the top dynamic is only forte. The detail though is immense. Right from the start there are distinct markings above, below and on the stave and the composer has asked for the balance to be perfect between individual and group voices.

Cornets are grouped into trios and duets, whilst the solo lines are almost echoes of previous thematic material. The music has a lovely flow and development whilst at all times everything has an understated control. Three times the composer demands that the music revert to the original tempo – even at the end, so there can be no false excitement generated through the misuse of speed. This opening is all about control and clarity and woe betide any bands who don’t heed the written word on the score.

The second movement is a beautifully constructed interlude of a theme and variations that place great musical demands on the primary soloists in the band. The theme is set out in ¾ time with a clarity that Mozart would have been proud of, before it is developed with subtlety and feel for the music. It calls on the soloists to express themselves without ever losing sight of the basic simplicity of the line so even when the cornet and euph seem to be in free time, the underlying structure is still there to be heard. It asks for passion and should be given it – only players with music in their hearts will succeed in making it sound as it should, others will make it sound like an exercise form the Arban Tutor. The movement ends as it begins – with a simple reaffirmation of the theme and a bass note that dies away in the ether.

Finally the last – marked “Scherzo” it is a playful, bright and bubbly movement that is marked giogoso – not presto. Again, the composer has deliberately marked the score in full to emphasis exactly what he wanted to hear, so the devil is once more in the detail. One point to note is that there are few if any accent markings to emphasis the beats – oh so many will try and to put them in for sure. This music doesn’t need an artificial pulse, the bands that capture the true spirit will find that it just skips along.

Once more the dynamic markings are not full blooded either with forte the general top end dynamic marking , so control is what is called for. The solo cornet has one of the nicest bits of filligree obligato work ever written at figure 13, whilst the rest of the band will have to try hard to capture the misterioso fell at 10. It ends with a double forte climax (one of the very few in the piece) before a final lento brings things to an end. A fine piece whic


 

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