CD cover - The History of Brass Band Music - New AdventuresThe History of Brass Band Music - New Adventures


In the last of the six part series on musical brass band history, Elgar Howarth and Grimethorpe look forward with a little help from the past.

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Grimethorpe Colliery Band 
Conductor:  Elgar Howarth
Soloist: Richard Marshall
Doyen Recordings: CD165
Total Playing Time: 75.33

It would be interesting to know how many brass band enthusiasts still possess a copy of Grimethorpe’s  legendary (or perhaps infamous would be a more accurate description) 1973 recording on Decca Headline, Grimethorpe Special. We’d stick a few quid on it not being too many. Or perhaps equally significant, how many still have a good old turntable to play it on?


Well, for those of us who disposed of our dust gathering vinyl collections with the advent of the compact disc, we can at last hear once again the very music that caused such a furore thirty five years ago...and what’s more we are told that those original recordings have been freshly re-mastered in glorious (at least that’s what modern technology should allow) 2008 digital technicolour.

It’s been a long time in coming but with the sixth and final instalment in Elgar Howarth’s major project, The History of Brass Band Music, we finally come full circle in a volume entitled “New Adventures”. It’s a disc that neatly draws together elements of the contemporary repertoire that Howarth forged with Grimethorpe back in the 1970’s, whilst giving us an opportunity to compare the band of today with the band of yesteryear; and a fascinating comparison it proves to be.

Historic performances

Just as noteworthy as the inclusion of the historic performances though are the new recordings; and none more so than the Derek Bourgeois 'Concerto No. 1'. It’s a work that has been scandalously neglected given its quality and the fact that it was the first major work for band to come from Bourgeois’ pen in 1974.

The composer’s reputation in the classical world had largely already been established by the time the Concerto was written, hence the fact that it already possesses numerous Bourgeois trademarks, not least of which is the highly developed sense of wit that can be heard in so much of his music; there can’t be too many composers that could come up with a title for a movement like “Mr Bolt goes for a ride in his motor car and Monsieur Ravel turns in his grave”. 

Ahead of their time

At the time of its composition, the challenges of technique and stamina the work presented were scarily daunting, a fact that could easily be forgotten, such is the stunning dynamism and virtuosity of Grimethorpe’s playing under Elgar Howarth; it’s almost impossible to imagine the music being played with greater verve than it is here. Turn the clock back to 1974 and both the band and the music that were very much ahead of their time.

Bourgeois’ sense of humour is never far from the surface, from the references to 'Polly put the kettle on' and Arthur Benjamin’s 'Jamaican Rumba' in the opening movement to the bizarre, almost surreal 'War March of the Ostriches', bringing the piece to a shattering conclusion that verges on the apocalyptic, an apt word perhaps given the title of Bourgeois’ latest brass band work.
It is in the central movement though that the heart of the music is to be found, yet even here the glorious Ravelian textures and sense of colour that Bourgeois so eloquently explores are threatened by a climax of devastating power. Ultimately, both the music and the playing add up to an experience that cannot be missed.

Music in the can

It’s a sign of how long Doyen has had this music in the can (since 2005 to be precise) that it is Richard Marshall who is the soloist in the Chris Sansom 'Trumpet Concerto'. Sansom’s is a name that might not be readily familiar, although his “Invisible Cities” for trumpet, trombone and orchestra, was written for no less than Håkan Hardenberger and Christian Lindberg, whilst the Trumpet Concerto was written for James Watson although has since been played and broadcast with Hardenberger as the soloist. 

Modernistic territory

It’s a piece that inhabits more overtly modernistic territory than the Bourgeois although it’s frequent incursions into the world of jazz lend it a tone that Paul Hindmarsh aptly refers to in his liner notes as both “quirky” and “eclectic”. It’s also not short on demands on the soloist and Richard Marshall comes out of the battle with full honours, stamping his authority on the part from the very opening.

The long central movement, inscribed “in memoriam Duke Ellington” sees the soloist switch from trumpet to flugel horn, with both the soloist  and the often thinly scored accompaniment from the band conjuring up a suitably smoke filled (as it would have been back then), sleazily laid back blues club atmosphere, albeit with something of a sinister undertone at times.

On the evidence here Richard Marshall can more than hold his head up in the illustrious company of the work’s previous champions, James Watson and Håkan Hardenberger....and that’s no mean feat by any standards.

Marvellous things

And so to the 1970’s territory of the Decca re-masters. Engineers can do marvellous things with historic recordings these days, a fact regularly borne out by the string of classical releases plundering the archives for performances of 'The Planets' conducted by Holst himself and the 'Elgar Violin Concerto' to name but two. 

We’ll say right away that you can expect blemishes and clicks that could have been addressed with a greater degree of attention in the studio.

Odd clicks

That said, the odd clicks (particularly noticeable in the Birtwistle we found) do not damage the overall impression of just what a fine band Grimethorpe was in this repertoire at a time when few, if any, other bands were venturing “off road”. The intensity of Elgar Howarth’s direction is almost palpable throughout.

Hans Werner Henze’s gloriously off beat 'Ragtimes and Habaneras' has perhaps become the best known of the three works from the Decca era, largely due to its relative accessibility in comparison to the Birtwistle and Takemitsu. 


It plays out like a series of Central American holiday snapshots, some only seconds long, ranging from swaying palm tree fringed beaches, via sleazy opium dens to what sounds like a bizarre encounter between 'Mack the Knife' and 'Colonel Blimp'. Eccentric it most certainly is....but wonderfully so.

There is nothing else quite like it in the repertoire and few who understand Henze’s music like Howarth, who exploits every nuance of the work’s many Latin dance rhythms with a winning combination of character and wit.


By contrast, Takemitsu’s 'Garden Rain', originally written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and re-scored for band by Elgar Howarth, is characteristically restrained in its evocation of space, colour and natural landscape.

The form and art of the Japanese Garden influenced much of Takemitsu’s music and this brief meditation, rarely rising above the quiet dynamic of the opening other than for a fleeting but highly effective central climax, is typical of his finely crafted work. Once again Howarth’s pacing and awareness of the music’s crucial silences and colours are impressively mirrored in the band’s responses.

Musical path

If there is a composer who has stuck unswervingly to his own musical path over the years, it is the now seventy five year old Harrison Birtwistle, a man whose roots hail from the brass band heartland of Accrington and who made an early name for himself whilst studying in Manchester (along with one Elgar Howarth incidentally, who is one year Birtwistle’s junior).

Unlike Henze and Takemitsu, Birtwistle has added a further work to his brass band tally in the form of 'Salford Toccata', written in 1989, although it is 'Grimethorpe Aria' that has attained the status of icon or infamy, depending on personal perspective. 

That the work was ground breaking is indisputable and listening to it afresh, after so many years out of the recorded catalogue, its essential bleakness still remains. A tough nut to crack such as this will always attract its critics but like John McCabe’s 'Images', this is one of those works that deserves to be given a new chance to breath.

Fresh perspective

In many ways, it would have been good to hear a freshly recorded perspective on the work, but instead we have Howarth and the Grimethorpe of the 1970’s reminding us in some style of the austerity, fractured fanfares and unsettling darkness of a work that is not only iconic but monolithic in its strangely involving’s unlikely to be chosen as a test piece for the Regional Championships in the near future so get it here while you can!

In its entirety, Grimethorpe and Elgar Howarth’s 'The History of Brass Band Music' is probably the most important series of brass band discs ever to be produced. Volume 6, more than any of the other volumes, will divide opinion for obvious reasons of repertoire, but in many ways that is the very reason why it might just be the most important volume of the lot.

Either way, it is certainly going to be one of the most important releases of 2009.

Christopher Thomas

What's on this CD?

Concerto No.1 for Brass Band Op. 44, Derek Bourgeois
1. I. Le Tombeau d'Arthur Benjamin, 5.32
2. II. Mr Bolt goes for a ride in his motor car and Monsieur Ravel turns in his grave, 6.47
3. III. The War March of the Ostriches, 5.08
Trumpet Concerto, Chris Sansom, Richard Marshall (Trumpet)
4. I., 5.14
5. II., 11.42
6. III., 6.51
7. Garden Rain, Toru Takemitsu arr. Elgar Howarth, 6.57
Digitally re-mastered from 'Grimethorpe Special' DECCA 1977
8. Grimethorpe Aria, Harrison Birtwistle, 13.39
Digitally re-mastered from 'Grimethorpe Special' DECCA 1977
9. Ragtimes and Habaneras, Hans Werner Henze, 13.23
Digitally re-mastered from 'Grimethorpe Special' DECCA 1977

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