2006 All England Masters International - Test piece review

24-May-2006

4BR looks at the Alton Towers of brass band test pieces, and wonders of if it will once again excite those who opt for the thrilling ride.


WilbyPaganini Variations – Philip Wilby

‘Paganini Variations' is the Alton Towers of test pieces.

Thousands have visited it over the years, and every man jack of them has been thrilled by the breathtaking roller coaster rides to be found within its boundaries. It's a fun house of technical brilliance and musical enjoyment, a masterful exhibition of the compositional craft. It may frighten the life out of every player who first opens their part, but given a strong constitution, nerves of steel and the ability to overcome the intricacies of the Gordian knot of problems it poses, it leaves the conductor and performer with a sense of enjoyable fulfilment that few other test pieces can match.

Just like Alton Towers however, it has become a challenge that has been cheapened by its popularity. Unlike Alton Towers, it has retained its dignity despite its almost constant degrading by ASBO brass bands and their musically inept conductors who have had little respect for it stature. It's brilliance as a test piece has never lost its sheen, despite the best efforts of the cheap thrill seekers who have tortured it to varying degrees of catastrophe. 

Everyone enjoys ‘Paganini Variations', but that doesn't mean that it has been in any way mastered by the vast majority of cock eyed attempts to overcome its challenges. 15 years after it was first written, it is time for the piece to once more to be performed at the highest level by the very best bands. It deserves nothing less.

Since it was commissioned in 1991 by the BBC, it has perhaps become the most performed modern test of all time. There cannot be many aspiring bands who have not tried to overcome it and not many bandrooms where it cannot be found in the librarian's cupboard.

Much of it initial popularity stemmed from the fact that it was given a whole hatful of outstanding performances at the 1991 British Open, won in quite breathtaking manner by Grimethorpe Colliery Band conducted by Frank Renton in his pomp. It is questionable whether there has ever been a better performance, although on the day they were pushed all the way, especially by Fairey's who all but had the contest in their pocket before their percussion section started hitting the hell out of the side drums in the final ‘Full Voice' section to lose them the contest.

Within a year it was being used all over the world and it has since been played by Championship and Youth Bands, by ensembles from Chicago to Christchurch and at contests as diverse as Pontins to the Norwegian Nationals.

It was last used at the Masters in 1995, when Fodens under Howard Snell gave one of the truly rare world class performances of it since 1991 to win the title. There have been very, very few since.

Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that the piece is so accessibly easy to play poorly, yet so impossibly intricate to perform brilliantly. Right from the opening few bars through to the magnificent ‘Land of Hope and Glory' build to that final ‘Plena Voce' it is as complex a score of cryptic intrigue that few, if any conductors unless of the highest class, fully understand the depth of musical language it contains. The subtleties of the writing ask immense questions of the performers as well as the conductors and only the best of both are able to answer them.

Take for instance the question of tempo.

Each of the 16 variations (although the composer does say only  14 in the notes at the beginning), as the composer states, "aims to exploit the full potential of modern brass band playing."  This can only be done with an acute understanding of the tempos of each.

The opening statement is marked crotchet =138, yet only four subsequent Variations have clear markings from the composer. The rest are marked with intention: from ‘Funebre' to ‘Bolero' but the relationship to what precedes and follows each is left to the conductor to work out and deliver intelligently. This is invariably where many falter: Too many performances lack any subtle kind of tempo variance. 

Dr Wilby also makes the point in his notes at the beginning of the score that "The full flavour of Paganini's romantic heritage finds its expression in a mixture of extravagantly virtuosic display, and serene and passionate melody." This is a clue to how to approach the music making as well as the technical pyrotechnics, yet so many MDs totally fail to understand the requirements so clearly set out in black and white.

The dynamics and notation markings to be found in just about every bar of the piece are varied and detailed and require refinement and a real sense of style. Meanwhile, the term extravagant doesn't mean completely OTT, so the technical stuff must have sense of warm virtuosic brilliance rather than cold, dead eyed note crunching.  Again, this is where so many fall flat.

The major variations where the flying fingers are set to work can still sound vibrant even at high speed - if they are given shape and style; yet so many will just blast them out Gatling Gun style.  The clever use of mutes is another point to note too. How many will get the balance right in the cornets at Variation II for instance?

Finally, passion. This is music to stir the soul, to stand up the hairs on the back on your neck, not on the palm of your hand.

Passion comes in many guises, and all of them require a touch of delicacy and warmth.  There is a real difference between dewy eyed ‘Lassie come Home' tugging at the heartstrings stuff and a real sense of romanticism that is to be found at Variation 14. Tenderness and flexibility is the key – a sense of understanding for your musical partner. So many on the day will opt for the ‘Wham Bang, Thank You Mam" approach.  The cadenzas in particular are marked ‘espressivo' – not ‘blastissimo'.

The section though that will give you all you need to know about the quality of the band that is playing and the musical intelligence of the MD will come at rehearsal marking O in Variation 14. The flugel leads with a sense of absolute tender sweetness, accompanied by treble piano cornet foundation and pizzicato euph. It builds and subsides with such perfect use of balance and colour that only the classiest bands will make it shimmer with a sense of despair (it follows the funebre variation) without wallowing in self pity and crocodile tears. Listen out and really think what you are hearing is moving your soul.

It of course all ends with a big crash, bang, wallop ending, but one that with a hint of genius still asks the bands to search for the detail amid the cacophony. Full Voice doesn't mean shout yourself hoarse, but so many will won't they?

'Paganini Variations' is one of the true great test pieces for brass band. It has survived battered but unbowed and deserves its place on the highest plinth of achievement of brass band compositions. Let's hope the bands at the Masters do it proud.

Iwan Fox.    

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