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LP review: 1983 Brass Band Festival

Featuring: Cory Band and massed bands of Besses o' th' Barn, St. Austell, Yorkshire Imperial
Conductors: Major Arthur Kenney; Elgar Howarth; Eric Ball
Guest Soloist: James Shepherd
Chandos Recordings: BBRD 1023
Cassette: BBTD 1023

The post-Covid future of the finals of the National Championships of Great Britain remains a topic of debate.

Opinions about what its structure should look like will invariably be amplified after bands head to Cheltenham and London for this year’s events. 

Many people believe that the answer lies in holding them over a single weekend at the Royal Albert Hall, echoing the first occasion 40 years ago, when according to the sleeve notes on this Chandos album it took place at the “Mecca of brass banding”.

Whether that is now financially feasible given the imposing hall costs as well as the hotel and travel expenses to be met by the competitors themselves is questionable.  Can two days of contesting really attract enough people to fill the local ‘Mecca’ bingo hall, let alone the plush seats in the old Kensington cake-tin?

Year of firsts

1983 was the year of the first compact disc, wheel clamps, a General Election and the death of William Walton.  Lester Piggott won the Derby and Breakfast television hit our screens.  Times and tastes were already undergoing radical change.   

It was also the year of Cory’s second successive National Championship victory under the diminutive genius that was Major Arthur Kenney, whilst the other National Champions (Second, Third and Fourth) crowned on the weekend of the 8th & 9th October were Penclawdd Brass, Middleton and Handcross Brass. 

It was also the year of Cory’s second successive National Championship victory under the diminutive genius that was Major Arthur Kenney

This digital recording (Chandos covered the three years 1982-1984) featured Cory’s winning 'Ballet for Band'  performance, full of impish balletic character and delicately textured balances (even in the hall’s notoriously spongey acoustic). The highlights of the ‘National Gala Concert’ on the Saturday evening featured three bands that didn’t compete against them earlier in the day. 

Electrifying Shepherd

The march ‘Brilliant’  (by Ord Hume not Paul Dukas as noted on the sleeve) is followed the Derek Bourgeois arrangement of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’,  which although not quite spellbinding still sparkles with mischief under Elgar Howarth’s direction. 

thankfully in what was a mini tribute to the Alexander Owen by Besses and Howarth, James Shepherd was recorded for posterity playing ‘The Mermaid’s Song’.   It’s an electrifying performance.

Unfortunately, Robin Holloway’s ‘Men Marching’  (played by Yorkshire Imps) or the ‘Prelude to Tristan and Isolde’  and ‘A Selection from Rossini’s Works’  didn’t make the cut – although thankfully in what was a mini tribute to the Alexander Owen by Besses and Howarth, James Shepherd was recorded for posterity playing ‘The Mermaid’s Song’.   It’s an electrifying performance.

The concert was also an 80th birthday tribute to Eric Ball (‘Call of the Sea’  and ‘Four Preludes’  were programmed), who conducted the massed bands on ‘Jerusalem’,  although it was left to Elgar Howarth to direct a passionate ‘Resurgam’.

Pattern for the future

Interestingly, although the sleeve notes stated that the new format “proved enormously successful and will surely provide the pattern for future”, it only ‘rose again’ in contesting inclusiveness until 1985. 

After that the lower section finals returned to various venues across London and then in 1996 on a different weekend entirely around the country to Cardiff, Birmingham, Harrogate, Nottingham, Preston, Torquay, Dundee, Harrogate (again) and since 2011, Cheltenham. 

Interestingly, although the sleeve notes stated that the new format “proved enormously successful and will surely provide the pattern for future”, it only ‘rose again’ in contesting inclusiveness until 1985. 

The format returned in the year 2000 as a one-off, whilst the Gala Concerts survived with ever diminishing audiences for another decade (with a one-off in 1997) before it finally bit the dust.

And as much as people may wish to see a return to a weekend of massed music making at an iconic venue in the heart of London, for the time being recorded nostalgia is perhaps the best they can realistically hope for.

Iwan Fox


Play List 

Side 1:
1. Brilliant (J. Ord Hume)
Massed Bands
Conductor Elgar Howarth

2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas arr. Bourgeois)
Massed Bands
Conductor: Elgar Howarth

3. The Mermaid’s Song (Oberon) (Weber arr. A. Owen)
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band
Conductor: Elagr Howarth
Soloist: James Shepherd

Side 2:
1. Ballet for Band (Joseph Horovitz)
Cory Band winning performance
Conductor: Maj. Arthur Kenney

2. Resurgam (Eric Ball)
Massed Bands 
Conductor: Elgar Howarth

3. Jerusalem (Parry arr. S. Herbert)
Massed Bands
Conductor: Eric Ball

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