Philip Wilby’s musical contribution to the brass band movement, and in particular the British Open Championship, provides a fascinating time line in compositional history, both of the composer and of the contest itself.
His canon of six ‘Open’ test pieces (although not all were originally written for the event) are extraordinary works in their own right, but it has been the way in which he explored a path of such creative imagination with each of them, which others composers have since followed, that has been as equally remarkable.
The impact of ‘Paganini Variations’ in 1991 is a case in point; the traditional concept of a brass band test piece based on a theme and variations completely revitalised, as Wilby balanced extravagant virtuosity with heartfelt emotion in a manner that has perhaps never been bettered (or been more popular).
Two years later and ‘Masquerade’ simply blew the mind: A character portrait that asked such demanding questions of technique and musical insight that it was deemed by many to be ‘unplayable’.
It wasn’t - although it remains at the diamond level on the Mohs scale of contest hardness.
Yet by the time of ‘Revelation’ in 1995, Wilby had changed track once again to produce arguably the blue print for the modern 21st century test piece.
It was also way ahead of its time and divided opinion, although within a few years its structures and ideas were plagiarised by composers all over the banding world.
The composer himself is wonderfully modest, almost self deprecating in recalling his achievements.
The insightful interview with Paul Hindmarsh that provides something of an oral appendix to this excellent release sees Wilby expertly deflecting the spotlight, despite the delicate academic probing of his host.
As a result it reveals a tantalising glimpse into the composer’s immense musical hinterland, from which you gain a deeper understanding behind the inspirations of each featured work.
He allows his music to do his talking for him - and on this occasion he is very well served by Black Dyke under the baton of Dr Nicholas Childs, to whom he dedicated his dry witted ‘Breathless Alleluia’ - with its bubbling energy and focussed drive.
‘Paganini’ is performed with a burnished virtuosity counterbalanced by warm lyrical poise; the stylistic variables expertly defined and paced.
So too ‘Masquerade’, in a deeply impressive portrait of nuanced pomposity, bluff and splendour - a mature Falstaff who has rid himself of the headless bravura of youth; more reflective and joyful in his pleasures.
It is warmly operatic in its drama, deliciously cold in its forensic detail.
The final stamp of quality is delivered with ‘Revelation’ - in a juggernaut rendition of refined power: Ornate and splendid, it ultimately fuses into a shuddering apocalyptic climax.
It also closed a release that leaves you rather breathless in anticipation of hearing the remaining British Open works of ‘...Dove Descending’, ‘Vienna Nights’ and ‘Red Priest’ delivered with tributes of such authority and understanding.
1. A Breathless Alleluia, Philip Wilby, with Philip Wilby (Organ), 4.10
2. Paganini Variations, Philip Wilby, 16.42
3. In conversation, Philip Wilby and Paul Hindmarsh, 12.44
4. Masquerade, Philip Wilby, 13.01
5. Revelation, Philip Wilby, 18.44