CD cover - The History of Brass Band Music – Classical ArrangementsThe History of Brass Band Music – Classical Arrangements

9-Oct-2007

Grimethorpe Colliery Band
Conductor: Elgar Howarth
Doyen Recordings: CDDOY164
Total Playing Time: 68.26

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The penultimate disc in this increasingly impressive series is a superbly crafted release with nine performances of the highest quality by Grimethopre Colliery (UK Coal) Band directed with elegant musicality by Elgar Howarth. 

One puzzling question remains however: Why on earth has it taken close on two years to be produced? The back cover of the sleeve notes tells us that it was recorded at Morley Town Hall during 2005, the cover itself refers to the band under its former identity whilst the band personnel includes players who have long since departed. It doesn’t make the recording any less impressive of course, but it is curious nonetheless.  Perhaps there was a good reason for it all along, but this release was a long time coming.

The wait has been well worthwhile however. Elgar Howarth has chosen to highlight the ability of a variety of composers to transform orchestral works into a new form – that of the brass band arrangement. And arrangements they are too – not transcriptions or that most modern of ludicrous afflictions – a ‘realisation’.  What we have here, as Howarth himself states, are ‘experts in the genre which not only tie necessary musical skills successfully to transform original scores into a convincing new form, but do it (sic) with that streak of daring even recklessness which takes one by surprise.”

Howarth’s choices are illuminating as well as thoroughly interesting and entertaining.  The giants of the late Victorian era are represented by the startling contributions of Alexander Owen and William Rimmer, whilst the interregnum between World Wars is represented by a contribution of William Halliwell (mistakenly credited as Hallum on the sleeve). Eric Ball and Denis Wright represent the tasteful conservatism of the immediate post war generation, whilst Howarth, Howard Snell and Ray Farr are the thrilling examples of the how the movement’s repertoire has been enhanced by the ambitious resourcefulness of orchestral trained talent.  The inclusion of a work by Peter Warlock, may be seen as something of a curiosity, but it also reveals a compositional voice that was lost to the medium.

The playing throughout the recording is of the highest quality from Grimethorpe; fabulously rich and warm ensemble sounds, balanced dynamics all coupled with the subtle ability to change style and timbre almost at a whim.  Howarth directs with a loving hand, a delicate appreciation of tempi and with a mischievous glint in his musical eye just to leave indelible little fingerprints of exquisite tastefulness. There are tiny little moments throughout (a little pull back, a subtle rallentando, a beautifully turned corner or rounded phrase ending) that bring a smile of deep satisfaction to the ear. 

The ‘Tristan and Isolde Prelude’ would be a remarkable arrangement even by today’s standards let alone something that was written around 125 years ago. Owen was of course a quite remarkable musician, yet this arrangement sounds so full of nuance and lyrical depth that you do question just how talented he actually was.

The same applies to William Rimmer too, with his crystal clear arrangement of ‘Nabucco’ which still stirs the blood perhaps a century after it was arranged.

In his superb essay (calling them sleeve notes would be a disservice) that accompanies the release, Professor Trevor Herbert proffers the opinion that Rimmer was perhaps ‘formulaic’ in his approach to arranging. If so it was one heck of a successful formula from a musical alchemist that even today retains its lustre.

In contrast to the timeless potential of those early arrangements, the contributions of both Eric Ball and Denis Wright feel surprisingly dated. 

Somehow both Wright’s arrangement of ‘Academic Festival Overture’ and Ball’s arrangement of ‘Froissart Overture’ seem decidedly stiff and colourless, overtly conservative in approach, if still tasteful in execution. It would be harsh to suggest that either man lacked ambition in the arranging process here, but neither piece leaps at you with freshness of thought despite the wonderful playing of the band and the delicate crafting of the conductor.

As well meaning as they are, these are perhaps just two examples of the musical thought process that so choked the development of original brass band repertoire in the 20 year period after the Second World War. It’s like admiring some of your granny’s Royal Doulton collection of figurines in the glass case of her front room – nicely made, but dated, dowdy and of very limited appeal.

The inclusion of Warlock’s delightful arrangement of the Delius ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ (written around 1928) also emphasises how drably worthy many arrangements of the post war period were. You can only wonder what course brass band repertoire may have taken if the potential of this composer had been explored further before his death in 1930.

Perhaps that is why the contributions of Snell, Farr and Howarth himself are so gloriously technicolour in comparison too. All three certainly didn’t lack for ambition in whatever they did.  Snell’s take on Debussy’s ‘Des Pas sur la Neige’ is remarkable, quite remarkable, whilst Farr’s bold account of Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Four Scottish Dances’ is a kaleidoscope of tartan vibrancy.

Howarth’s ‘Giles Farnaby Suite’ is a gem – all the more so as it is performed with such clarity of execution and style by the band and conductor.  Hearing a brass band playing in this way reveals how broad a musical pallete can be used and exploited by the very best arrangers coupled with the very best bands. 

There is now just the one more release in the series to come, and if it is anything as good as this one (with added congratulations to the production team) it will be well worth the wait. Let’s hope they get a move on though.

Iwan Fox.   

What's on this CD?

1. Tristan and Isolde Prelude, Richard Wagner arr. Owen, 9.17
2. Praeludium, Armas Järnefelt arr. Hallum, 2.39
3. Nabucco Overture, Verdi arr. Rimmer, 6.39
4. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Delius arr. Warlock, 5.59
5. Academic Festive Overture, Brahms arr. Wright, 9.55
6. Giles Farnaby Suite — Galiarda, Giles Farnaby arr. Howarth, 1.23
7. His Dream, 1.18
8. His Humour, 1.17
9. His Rest, 1.27
10. Mal Sims, 1.30
11. Froissart Overture, Elgar arr. Ball, 13.30
12. Des Pas sur la Neige, Debussy arr. Snell, 3.35
13. Four Scottish Dances — Movement 1, Malcolm Arnoldarr. Farr, 2.08
14. Movement II, 2.06
15. Movement III, 3.18
16. Movement IV, 1.21

Total Playing Time: 68.26

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