The simple strap line title of this CD sums up the spirit of adventure and musical enterprise that flows freely through the veins of Norwegian banding.
All too often the word ‘contemporary’ has been seen as a skewed epithet for everything that many dedicated brass band traditionalists stand against in modern music; the cerebral, the atonal, the thought provoking or the downright odd.
Yet, with this welcome release from Stavanger directed by Allan Withington, we have a brass band (and MD) that revels in revealing what is fascinating musical territory, whilst at the same time reflecting the kaleidoscopic diversity of three significant native Norwegian composers.
In reality, Håkon Berge’s ‘Brass Blót’ and ‘Waltzes and Rags’, along with Gary Peterson’s ‘Vocalise, Fanfare and Rondo’, never deviate from their committed statements of intent:. They are full of purposeful musical structure and tonality.
In the case of Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen’s, ‘Blue Phrases’ (a wonderful trumpet concerto in all but name), we are plunged into more exploratory territory in which electronics and quarter tones are used to extend the range and sonority of both band and soloist.
‘Brass Blót’ gained widespread critical acclaim when used as the set test for the 2008 European Championships in Stavanger - and rightly so.
The ‘’Blót’ refers to the Norwegian word for ‘offering’, with the music exploring what the composer describes as, “...a skewed look at the brass band contest. Those that offer most to the Gods, in this case the judges, will win.”
Devoid of cliché
The result, although demanding in performance terms, is refreshingly devoid of contesting formula and cliché.
Laying its material before the listener in admirably clear fashion, the symphonic-like metamorphosis of it themes are deftly handled by Berge in a thoughtfully constructed exploration of development, colour and textural variation.
The refinement of the musical thinking is matched every step of the way by Stavanger’s cultured performance.
With pianist Sveinung Bjelland as soloist, Berge’s ‘Waltzes and Rags’ joins the slender genre of repertoire for piano and brass band that has, in recent years, most notably included Martin Ellerby’s ‘Cabaret Concerto’ and Bram Tovey’s ‘Pictures in the Smoke’.
Ranging from the wistful and profound to the melancholic and joyful, the series of contrasting, vignette episodes are delivered with a compelling osmosis of musicality.
It is a composition that admirably demonstrates how successful such a combination can be – in the right hands.
As a former principal cornet, Odin Hagen’s links with Stavanger and Torstsein Aagaard-Nilsen go back to his pre-professional days, with the composer therefore well versed in the impressive abilities of the dedicatee of ‘Blue Phrases’.
There is no doubt that it is the most esoteric of the featured works for the listener to connect with, although it is made engagingly coherent by the composer’s dexterous integration of electronics into the musical architecture.
Here they become intoxicating echoes of the underworld in a distinctly 21st century take on the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Odin Hagen is an exemplary soloist in music, whilst pushing banding boundaries, teases the ear with its myriad textures and aural palette.
That leaves Gary Peterson’s weighty, ‘Vocalise, Fanfare and Rondo’.
It is arguably the most conventional of the four compositions; skilfully moulding rhythmic vigour and lyrical intensity into a melodically attractive tripartite piece that at nearly 19 minutes long is a major and most welcome addition to the repertoire.
As both an exploration of recent trends in Norwegian brass band music and a display of Stavanger’s innate understanding of the contemporary genre, this recording is a triumph in every way possible.
We can only hope that a second volume might be forthcoming.
1. Brass Blót, Håkon Berge (2007)
2. Waltzes & Rags (for Piano and Brass Band), Håkon Berge (2006)
3. Blue Phases, Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen (2006/2007)
4. Vocalise, Fanfare and Rondo, Gary B. Peterson, (2007)