CD cover - New Music for Brass BandNew Music for Brass Band

14-Oct-2008

Fodens release one of the most eagerly awaited CDs of the year. Is it a return to serious brass band values though?

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Foden’s Richardson Band 
New Music for Brass Band
Conductor: Bramwell Tovey
NMC Recordings: 
Total Playing Time: 72.54

It’s not that often these days that a CD of brass band music is released on a “mainstream” classical label, let alone one that receives wider attention in the classical music world through its principal journalistic outlet, the Gramophone magazine.

It’s possibly even rarer that such a CD should feature music that is either little known or by composers that should be acknowledged with wider acclaim for their worthy additions to the brass band repertoire.

Different kettle of fish

True, Black Dyke achieved a notable success with “Symphonic Brass” on the budget Naxos label in 2007, but NMC is an altogether different kettle of fish, a charitable foundation established to promote the interests and recordings of British contemporary creative talent.

Founded by amongst others, composer Colin Matthews, the label has provided a huge boost to the availability of modern British music on CD, priding itself on retaining all of its output in the catalogue at any one time; no deletions here, as is so often the frustrating case with many other classical labels.

Brass first

Brass band music is a first for NMC however, the mastermind behind the project being Paul Hindmarsh, a man who amongst the movers and shakers of the brass band world now holds something of a unique position for his continued and vital championship of both our repertoire and bands generally.

Crucially, he is one of few people that are able to pride a bridge between brass bands and the wider world of classical music. One glance along the list of works on this disc and his influence is clear, whether it be in the form of editor, arranger or commissioner.       
                         
In the classical music world at least, it could be argued that the phrase “new music” has become synonymous with the highbrow avant-garde; what some might see as the academic school of squeaky- gateism, where the intellectual and cerebral has been allowed to dominate and in some cases eclipse the emotional element of music.

Wider perception

If that is indeed the wider perception of the phrase then it is certainly not applicable to the music on this disc. No, not even to Judith Bingham’s terrifically powerful Prague; and we all remember the unnecessary fuss about that back in 2003. 

In reality not all of the music is even that new, with George Benjamin’s Altitude (the composer’s first published work, written at the request of Elgar Howarth when he was just seventeen) now being thirty years old.

The fact of the matter is that what we have here are six diverse, fascinating and richly rewarding works that range from the sadly neglected (Richard Rodney Bennett) via the underestimated (Hesketh, Bingham and Benjamin) to the comparative “comfort zone” of Philip Wilby, Howarth, Gregson etc in the intriguing collaborative collection of Variations on a Theme of Tippett.

Simply on fire

Not a note to be daunted by then and all played by Bramwell Tovey and a Foden’s Richardson Band that is quite simply on fire. 

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Flowers of the Forest: Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song is never likely to reach the contest stage on account of its quiet opening and ending, perhaps one of the reasons why it has suffered such neglect and why we should be grateful to Paul Hindmarsh for bringing the light of day to what here proves itself to be a hidden gem.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s reputation in the spheres of film and classical music goes without saying, but this remains his only work for brass band, written for the NYBB in 1989.

Subtle

Paul Hindmarsh has subtly revised the scoring to take account of the smaller forces of the standard brass band and what emerges is a work of considerable emotional impact, growing from the melting sounds of the initial statement of the theme on cornet, via the sounds of battle and dance to the haunting concluding echoes of the theme across a deserted battle field.

Second Section bands might remember Kenneth Hesketh’s Danceries being used as the National Finals test piece in 2002, although The Alchymist’s Journal is a more ambitious work, commissioned by Paul Hindmarsh for Black Dyke to play at the 2002 Festival of Brass. 

Hesketh is another composer that enjoys a major reputation in contemporary classical music (his orchestral work Graven Image was premiered at this year’s Proms).

His language however demonstrates great versatility, with his band works generally showing a more tonally orientated side to his nature than the more cutting edge sounds of his “classical” works.

Scoring master

He is also a master of scoring and textural subtlety, as is clearly shown in The Alchymist’s Journal, an exciting, dynamic set of continuously conceived musical metamorphoses, drawing its inspiration from the book by American author, Evan S. Connell. Hesketh is a composer with the ability to produce a corker of a Championship Section test piece if someone were bold enough to take the initiative.

George Benjamin’s Altitude is scored with a similar facility for texture and timbre and despite its early chronology in Benjamin’s catalogue (he is now only a couple of years away from his fiftieth birthday) it’s a remarkably assured and mature work.

Boy wonder

Then again Benjamin was always seen as something of a boy wonder, studying with Olivier Messiaen in Paris during his late teens and shortly after he wrote Altitude, enjoying his first major international success with the orchestral work Ringed by the Flat Horizon, one of the most performed contemporary British orchestral works of the last twenty five years or so.

Benjamin is a craftsman, his output being relatively small by most standards as a result of his fastidious attention to detail and painstaking working methods. Altitude is a relatively brief, eight minute study in flight; at great height, speed and cold.

Exceptional detail

The attention to detail given by Tovey and the band is exceptional, this is playing of the highest rank and although the work has been broadcast on numerous occasions, it seems incredible that a piece of this quality has never (to our knowledge at least) been recorded on CD before. Fortunately that has now been belatedly but deservedly put right.

For those of us used to the virtuosic pyrotechnics of Philip Wilby’s contest works, Shadow Songs might come as something of a surprise.

Restrained

The restrained introspection of this “Elegiac Fragment”, written for Besses at Paul Hindmarsh’s request when he was the band’s Musical Director in the early 1990’s (the work was premiered at the Lichfield Festival in 1992, the year that The New Jerusalem was used at the Royal Albert Hall), Shadow Songs is essentially a memorial to David Blunsden, Foden’s former solo baritone player who tragically died in 1990 and Harry Mortimer, whose spirit is recalled by a distant sounding of the “last post” in the closing bars.

With the exception of the solo voices, of which baritone, trombone and soprano figure prominently (Natsumi Inaba is exquisite in her playing of the moving baritone solo) much of the band is muted throughout in a moving work that although early in Philip Wilby’s catalogue of band music, already clearly points to his natural affinity with the medium.

Newest work

The Variations on a Theme of Tippett is the newest work on the disc, written in 2005 to celebrate Tippett’s centenary and first performed by Foden’s Richardson at the Festival of Brass of the same year.

There are numerous examples of collaborative works in classical music but in brass band terms this is a new departure, as Paul Hindmarsh comments in his comprehensive liner notes, a “unique pièce d’occasion”.

Once again it was Paul Hindmarsh himself that was responsible for drawing together the collective talents of Bramwell Tovey, Edward Gregson, Michael Ball, Elgar Howarth and Philip Wilby (a stellar line up if ever there was one) in a fascinating spectrum of the band world’s greatest creative talent.

Delight

The theme, a fleeting “Processional” drawn from Tippett’s opera A Midsummer Marriage, is a delight in itself but what follows is a fascinating parade of five brief variations, each bearing the unmistakeable fingerprint of its contributor and ranging from the wit of the Tovey (the language of A Night to Sing is very clearly discernible) to the austerity of the Howarth (a slow, deeply felt  funeral cortege with disembodied fanfares) to the virtuosic exuberance of Wilby’s stunning, concluding Birthday Fugue and Finale (anyone missing the more familiar personality of the composer in Shadow Songs will not be disappointed here).

All in all it’s a terrific achievement and makes for a stunning conclusion to the disc.     

Powerful music
             
Although it falls mid-way through the running order on the CD, we have deliberately left Judith Bingham’s Prague to last, and for us there is perhaps only one major point to be made. Listen to this piece afresh, setting aside any preconceptions from the controversy surrounding the 2003 Regional’s and you might just hear a very different work. 

Foden’s bring something totally fresh to what is strikingly powerful music and the playing really is at times quite breathtaking.

If ever a brass band piece was worthy of reassessment this is it; and there will never be a better opportunity for it to happen. This is not Judith Bingham’s only piece for brass band (in fact there are five in total) but it would be tragic if a composer of this talent were not to return to writing for band as a result of the events of 2003.

Propel brass

On several differing levels, this is unquestionably the most important brass band CD release of 2008. Not only does it propel brass bands into the wider musical spotlight (and in these days of minimal media exposure every opportunity in this respect has to be seized) it also gives us six works of real quality that were it not for Paul Hindmarsh’s involvement, might still be languishing in various states of neglect or simply unappreciated.

Add to the equation the inspired playing of Foden’s Richardson under the equally inspired direction of Bramwell Tovey and it all adds up to something very special indeed.

Christopher Thomas

What's on this CD?

1. Flowers of the Forest: Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song, Richard Rodney Bennett, 14.34
2. The Alchymist's Journal, Kenneth Hesketh, 12.30
3. Altitude, George Benjamin, 8.43
4. Prague, Judith Bingham
5. I. St. Wenceslas Chapel, 3.18
6. II. Rabbi Low creates the Golem, 2.44
7. III. Charles Bridge, 4.11
8. IV. Wenceslas Square, 2.42
9. Shadow Songs�����Philip Wilby, 10.06
10. Variations on a Theme of Tippett
11. I. Processional, Michael Tippett, 0.56
12. II. Danse des Amis, Bramwell Tovey, 1.45
13. III. Midsummer Song, Edward Gregson, 2.58
14. IV. Scherzettino, Michael Ball, 1.31
15. V. Collage, Elgar Howarth, 3.13
16. VI. Birthday Fugue and Finale, Philip Wilby, 4.36

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