CD cover - Michael Ball – featuring the music of Michael BallMichael Ball – featuring the music of Michael Ball


Black Dyke Band
Conductor: Nicholas J. Childs
Soloist: Roger Webster
Doyen Recordings: CD135
Total Playing Time: 64.53 mins

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Michael Ball is a very "English" composer, in that his output for brass reflects very much his own Manchester upbringing and his own musical education, which was encouraged and developed by teachers such as Herbert Howells, Humphrey Searle and John Lambert. However, far from being an insular composer his works have an almost "European" reflection to them possibly influenced by his association with Luciano Berio and Gyorgy Ligeti or his period of study in Italy during the early 1970's. Thus, we have a composer who combines the essential elements of both traditions and as such gives the listener an eclectic musical palette from which to choose.

For this CD Black Dyke and Nicholas Childs have worked closely with the composer to release a series of six of his works that range from the immensely impressive and popular "Whitsun Wakes" which was composed as a showpiece "tour de force" for Championship Section bands through to his "A Cambrian Suite" which was composed with youth bands very much in mind. Five of the six works are given premier recordings and reveal a composer of ingenuity and original voice who has a comprehensive understanding of the structures and capabilities of the modern brass band from top to bottom, from Championship to Youth band.

"Whitsun Wakes" provides the core substance of the CD and there has never been a more prescient time to hear the piece again. Written originally for the BBC "Music Live" Festival in May 1997 it gained widespread popularity after it was used for the 1997 British Open Championship. It is a lovely work full of traditional and modern styles, musical memories and technical challenges that echo our past and future. It has a simply structure and musical architecture that make it a joy to both play and listen to and its standing has certainly increased following its use as the set work for the Regional Championships in 2002.

Black Dyke give it a superb performance (interestingly the CD was recorded prior to the Yorkshire Regional Championships where Black Dyke won in handsome style) and the detailed layers of the work are revealed gloriously from the rich textures of the hymn tune interludes to the wizardry of the technical roller coaster sections. All the soloists are on top-notch form and you are left in no doubt that this is a tremendously crafted and performed work of substance. It is also interesting to note that this performance is some 23 seconds longer than Nicholas Childs last recorded performance of the piece with Fodens a few years ago. The extra length seems to suit the work better here though.

"An English Suite" was commissioned by the Brass Band Heritage Trust and Fodens in 2000 and was first used as a set work for the National Youth Championships that year and as the test piece for the Third Section National Finals in 2001. There we heard some fine performances, but it is safe to say none were in this league and Black Dyke approach this less taxing music with an exemplary professional approach. Nothing is overdone and there is an adherence to the tempos and dynamics that keep the music vibrant and lively. Neatly done.

"Midsummer Music" Sonata for Brass, was also a commissioned work this time by Paul Hindmarsh and Besses O' th' Barn who gave the first performance as far back as 1991 and as the title suggests it takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Nights Dream". There are four main sections to the work (which is played in one continuous movement), which reflect the characters found in the play and is descriptive writing in a light and almost breezy style. It reveals once more a sympathetic knowledge of a brass bands capability to play in a style that is far too often ignored.

"Cortege" is a cornet solo, which was originally written for performance by the flugel horn of Mark Walters of Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It is essential a homage to Herbert Howells, one of the composers teachers and greatest influences and is an elegant elegiac work that explores along liner lines a sarabande rhythm. There are faint echoes of Howells famous "Cortege" from "Pageantry" but the main voice sings in a plaintive style that is emotive and sad. Beautifully played by Roger Webster it is a work that deserves further airings.

"Chaucer's Tunes" however is something completely different and although originally written for Wind Band has been expertly crafted to suit a brass band. The echos of the people and times of the 14th century are brought to life here and tell in musical form some of the tales themselves from the famous literary work. Joyous and captivating it is an attractive suite that reveals a wit and robust rudeness that the book itself has in spades.

The final work is "A Cambrian Suite" which was commissioned jointly by Black Dyke and the Brass Band Heritage Trust and was premiered at the RNCM Festival of Brass by Black Dyke in January 2002. It was used soon after as the set work for the National Youth Championships later in the same year and will be again used as the set work for the 4th Section National Finals in Torquay. It's made up of three sections, "Gwyr Harlech" (Men of Harlech), "Suo Gan" (Cradle Song) and "Codiad Yr Hedydd" (The Rising of the Lark) and each has been skilfully put together to provide musical and technical challenges for bands at the is level. Dyke give it a cracking airing and it should be a popular work for both players and audience alike come Torquay.

Michael Ball is perhaps with the "retirement" of Philip Wilby the banding worlds foremost composer, and on the evidence put in front of us here you can hear why. These are superbly crafted works and Black Dyke give them superbly crafted performances. A strong contender even at this early stage for our CD of the Year. Top class stuff.

What's on this CD?

1. Whitsun Wakes, 16.58

2-4. An English Suite, 9.09
i. Scherzo, 2.18
ii. Nocturne, 3.55
iii. Plymouth Town, 2.56

5. Midsummer Music (Sonata for Brass), 12.51
6. Cortege, soloist: Roger Webster, 6.49
7. Chaucher's Tunes, 10.32

8-10. A Cambrian Suite, 8.32
i. Gwyr Harlech, 2.09
ii. Suo-Gan, 3.11
iii. Codiad Yr Herdydd, 3.12

Total playing time 64.63

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