Take 5
A quintet of Contest Music classics

4BR Editor Iwan Fox picks five performances of Wilfred Heaton's masterpiece to add to your recording library.

‘Contest Music’  arguably remains the ultimate test of musical character for players and conductors alike.

According to the composer its fragmentary genesis came from three composition 'exercises' written in the early 1950s which through a later distilled alchemy gave rise to a triptych work of near perfection.

Elemental process

Its austere beauty is a construct of elemental process – or even a deconstruction of classical norms; the outer movements continually develop, the central core remaining in lyrical stasis.

Not a note is misplaced; from the inverted uncoiling of the opening material in the first section, to the ambiguous yearnings of the central movement and the glorious incisiveness of the finale.  

Not that it was first recognised as such, as despite its commission it was rejected for use at the 1973 National Finals.  It eventually received its contesting premiere at the 1978 European Championship as an own-choice selection from the Swedish representative Solna Brass. 

Not a note is misplaced; from the inverted uncoiling of the opening material in the first section, to the ambiguous yearnings of the central movement and the glorious incisiveness of the finale.  

It was finally used for its original intent at the Royal Albert Hall in 1982, immediately securing its position at the apex of original repertoire written for the brass band medium.

Interpretive performances

These are five superbly interpretive performances (in chronological order) inspired by remarkable conductors - each gripping the attention and brokering little argument in comparative difference.

There wasn’t a commercial release we could find of Solna’s premiere (it is believed that it was recorded on the day) or of Rigid Containers winning performance under Bram Tovey at the British Open in 1988 (although there is an ‘unofficial’ one to be found on-line) or Foden’s and Garry Cutt in 2004.

However, there are many others that are well worth checking out - from Brighouse & Rastrick under Allan Withington at the 1998 Europeans to Black Dyke and Nicholas Childs in 2003 on  ‘The Heaton Collection’  CD release. 

These though take some beating. 

Cory Band (1982)
Conductor: Major Arthur Kenney
Highlights of the 1982 Brass Band Festival
Chandos Recordings: Double LP  

Cory’s live National title winning performance is by no means technically perfect, but it matters little for what the genius of Arthur Kenny (and Peter Parkes called him that) revealed in his interpretation of Heaton’s score.

Even in the cavernous acoustic of the Albert hall, the clarity of the individual as well as ensemble lines is starkly defined, the pacing of each movement (just over 14 minutes in total) allowing for the subtlest of malleable segues and dynamic contrasts in his symphonic appreciation of its construction.

Where others on the day misunderstood Heaton’s musical language (and the judges were pointed in both their appreciation as well as criticism), Major Kenny allowed it to speak for itself.

Black Dyke Mills Band (1986)
Conductor: Major Peter Parkes
The Complete Champions
Chandos Recordings: BBRD 1032 

In 1985 Black Dyke was unquestionably the finest band of the era at the very peak of their powers under the finest conductor in Major Peter Parkes.

‘Contest Music’ had formed part of their ‘BBC Band of the Year’ performance in January and they followed it by claiming the Yorkshire Area title on it a month later (a performance marked by principal cornet Phillip McCann’s 15 second top C#).

That ‘contest’ longueur is not repeated in this superbly constructed studio recording (it’s around 8 seconds in a stream-lined rendition that is a snip under 14 minutes long) – one that is built on a foundation of rich tonality and pragmatic musicality that has a wonderful sense of symphonic elegance.

Eikanger Bjorsvik Musikklag (2000)
Conductor: Howard Snell
Doyen Recordings: DOYCD105 

Snell’s appreciation of Heaton’s score is like watching the construction of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Taliesin estate take shape before your eyes; a triptych that blends form and function with austere beauty and controlled emotion.

The stanchion lines of the score never waver a millimetre out of place, the calibrated dynamics secure, the textures consistent. 

Eikanger play with reserve and understanding, a Nordic chill adding to Snell’s spatial deliberations and inclusive appreciation of the volume of silence. As a result, the performance (a snip under 15 minutes), retains a flow that draws the music ever forward.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band (2004)
Conductor: Elgar Howarth
The History of Brass Band Music – The Modern Era (1970 – 2000)
Doyen Recordings: DOYCD163 

Howarth’s approach to Heaton’s work borders on the forensic (close to 15 and a half minutes), yet by exposing the building blocks of its DNA his interpretation has a purity of thought matched by Grimethorpe’s superb execution of its needs.

Everything is cemented into place. There is an assuredness that never loses the clarity of the MDs focus -- the pacing equally deliberate, the spacing integral to the approach. 
However, this is no coldly academic treatise; the opening stamped with authority, the central section rationally calm, the final section bubbling with energy all the way to a ferocious climax.

Yorkshire Building Society Band (2004)
Conductor: David King
Music of the Spheres
Polyphonic Recordings: SFZ124

The last great flowering of the YBS/David King partnership was arguably when it also reached its musical pinnacle.

They had won the Masters title on the piece in 2000 (and there is a fine recording of it), but this studio release allowed the MD to eschew ‘contest’ considerations and delve deep into the score. 

What is revealed is an intense interpretation of lean, free-flowing muscularity (just on 14 minutes in length); the Australian not missing a single dynamic nuance or subtle degree of articulation to give the music clean edged definition and dramatic impulse.  The band deliver on everything that he commands.

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