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Symphonic Brass
Verdi • Bizet • Gershwin • Elgar • Brahms • Williams • Holst • Tchaikovsky • Walton


Connections between the British brass band in the wider world of music are not new, though links are becoming ever-stronger with the growing number of quality transcriptions now available. The trend began in the 1930s when Denis Wright devised a series from composers such as Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Elgar. These were played in BBC broadcasts by leading bands at a time when Wright had formed the Band Section of the BBC's Music Department. Links were strengthened during the 1940s when orchestral conductors such as Boult, Barbirolli and Sargent conducted performances of many of these works, particularly in spectacular massed band concerts organised in the Royal Albert Hall and other notable concert halls. Indeed, Sargent transcribed a number of works himself, some of which he recorded with Harry Mortimer's Men o' Brass.

Parallel to the transcription is the arrangement, though many would argue that whereas a transcription attempts to adhere faithfully to the original version, an arrangement deviates, with further musical ideas added by the arranger. Nevertheless, it is conventional nowadays to use the term arranger whether the work is a transcription or an arrangement. The art of the transcription moved forward again in later years, with transcriptions of larger-scale works such as the Enigma Variations of Elgar, arranged by Eric Ball, a leading brass band composer, conductor and adjudicator, and Mussorgsky's mighty Pictures from an Exhibition, arranged by Elgar Howarth, trumpet-player, composer and internationally-known conductor. It was scored initially for the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble and later for standard brass band. The Planets Suite, by Gustav Holst, became available to the brass band in an arrangement made by Stephen Roberts, a noted conductor and adjudicator, and for twenty years the distinguished French horn player of Fine Arts Brass Ensemble.

Several other notable transcriptions were made at this time by former professional trumpet-players, including Howard Snell, for many years principal trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra and Ray Farr, a former lead trumpet-player with the BBC Radio Orchestra. Bram Gay, another leading light in the brass band world, also a former orchestral trumpet-player, but later becoming Orchestra Manager at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, transcribed the complete orchestral parts to Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. The present recording contains a cross-section of fine transcriptions, some from earlier times but several made by a present-day group of writers continuing the tradition.

Track 2 takes us back to 1936, the year in which Denis Wright 'modernised' the transcription for brass of the orchestral overture with his noteworthy version of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, described by the composer as 'a very lively potpourri of student songs à la Suppé'.

Track 11, that most memorable Elgarian musical poem Nimrod, reminds us of the monumental Enigma Variations, composed in 1899 and transcribed in 1983 by Eric Ball, perhaps the Elgar of the brass band world. Our extract from The Planets (Gustav Holst, 1916) is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, the fourth of the planets portrayed in Holst's work, and commonly known as I Vow to Thee My Country. The brass band arrangement, by Stephen Roberts, appeared in 1996.

Alan Fernie is one of the most prolific of writers for brass band at the present time. His work takes up a substantial amount of space here, beginning with his arrangement of the spectacular Grand March from Aida. Verdi was commissioned to write this opera for the festivities connected with the opening of the Cairo Opera House. The first performance took place on Christmas Eve 1871, when it was hailed as a great success. The Grand March is the focal point of Act 2 and for it, Verdi had six 'Egyptian' trumpets built, based on ancient designs.

Fernie's next contribution is his suite from Bizet's Carmen. Though one of the most popular of all operas today, its first performance in Paris in 1875 was seen as a failure. Tragically, Bizet died three months later and therefore did not witness the enormous success the opera was to enjoy. The five well-known extracts from the opera that form this suite are beautifully contrasted, and portray well the Spanish flavour of the opera. The collection is brought to an end with the famous Toreador's Song.

The other suite included here also comes from Fernie, this one from the more modern Negro folk-opera Porgy and Bess, the ground-breaking work by George Gershwin, first performed in New York in 1935. In it Gershwin incorporated jazz and blues idioms within a full-scale opera. There have been many revivals of the opera, and during a European tour from 1950-52 it had a highly successful seventeen-week season in London. The opera, which reached the big screen in 1959, is based on the tragic story of Porgy, a crippled beggar, and his love for Bess, a much-sought-after girl from the slums. The suite comprises four well-known songs from the opera, all admirably suited to the idiom of the brass band.

Fernie's contribution is completed with his version of Sir William Walton's Spitfire Fugue, from the sound track of the film The First of the Few. This was a 1942 film that told the story of R J Mitchell, the designer of the famous fighter plane, used so effectively by the RAF during the Battle of Britain. The transcription reflects Walton's affection for brass.

Music for the remaining tracks has been arranged by a group of prominent arranger/composers of recent years. Taken in the order in which they appear, we first hear Deep Inside the Sacred Temple. This comes from Bizet's second most successful opera, The Pearl Fishers, first performed in Paris in 1863. Goff Richards, one of today's most prolific writers for brass band, has scored the duet to good effect for the band's two euphoniums.

Staying with Bizet, on track 10 we hear the exciting Farandole, from the incidental music to Daudet's play, L'arlésienne. Howard Lorriman, quickly climbing the ladder of success with several recent significant transcriptions, has made the arrangement. By profession, Lorriman is a teacher and is currently Director of Music at Batley Grammar School, in Yorkshire.

The penultimate track brings us music from the epic film of 1998, Saving Private Ryan. The film score is one of over a hundred by the legendary John Williams. Another giant of the cinema, Steven Spielberg, directs the film, based on the tragic story of four brothers who served in the US Army in World War II. The highly emotional Hymn to the Fallen is played during the closing credits of the film. It has been arranged by Klaas van der Woude, teacher and arranger, and conductor of the Belgian Brass Band De Bazuin Oenkirk.

To close this recording Nicholas Childs has chosen one of the most popular of all transcriptions from the orchestral repertoire, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. This was composed in 1880 to commemorate the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, his retreat, and the pealing of the bells of Moscow, celebrating his defeat. The final track re-unites the famous Childs Brothers, known for years as the Rawicz and Landauer of the euphonium, but now brought together as conductor and arranger through this arrangement of the famous overture by Robert Childs, brother of Nicholas who, of course, conducts.

Roy Newsome


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