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Of Gods and Kings
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Overture - Le Roi D'Ys (arr. Frank Wright) (1888) [10:46]
Arthur BUTTERWORTH (1923-2014)
Odin - from the Land of Fire & Ice Op.76 (1986) [15:38]
Stan NIEUWENHUIS
A King's Lie [13:12]
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Prometheus Unbound (1933) [9:21]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
King Arthur - Scenes from a Radio Drama (arr. Paul Hindmarsh) (1937) [15:26]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Entry of the Gods into Valhalla (arr. Howard Snell) (1854) [8:25]
Foden's Band/Michael Fowles
rec. Peel Hall, University of Salford, Manchester, February 2016; William Hulme's Grammar School, Manchester, June/July 2016
DOYEN DOYCD367 [62:02]

What a wonderfully bravura disc this is! A cunningly diverse and fascinating programme performed with superb musicianship and virtuosity by the Foden's Band under Michael Fowles recorded in excellent sound. The disc is given the title Of Gods and Kings, which is the starting point for a programme of music inspired by various myths and legends. The resulting sequence of music is diverse in style and inspiration but I have to say I think it works brilliantly either in isolation or as a complete programme. Another skilful aspect of the programme is the way it balances three original brass band works with another three highly effective arrangements.

The disc opens with what is in many ways the most 'traditional' fare in banding terms - it is not clear exactly when Frank Wright arranged the Lalo Overture to Le Roi D'Ys but transcribed operatic overtures were very much the bread and butter of early band concerts and contests. Wright's transcription is a genuine tour-de-force and breath-takingly performed here. One thing I did notice is that the Wagnerian influence seems more prominent when this music is played by massed sonorous brass. But listen to the closing pages to hear just how thrilling top calibre band playing can be - I dare anyone not to be stirred by this.

The next work plunges the listener into a darker more musically craggy world. This is the powerfully dramatic Odin - from the Land of Fire and Ice by the much-missed Arthur Butterworth. This might seem like a simplistic statement, but Butterworth's background as a trumpeter as well as his North of England upbringing makes him a naturally empathetic writer for brass band. And so it proves with this, the premiere studio recording of this substantial work. Butterworth provides the note for this work; "The cult of Odin was a dark and malevolent one. He was the God of the occult and war....Some of the spirit of aggressive challenging heroics has come down to us in the ceaseless struggle for supremacy, still pursued symbolically in the prowess displayed in musical performance". The music dives in with muscular conflict. The tri-partite fast/slow/fast structure is not given any other descriptive titles so while this can be heard as absolute music it is undoubtedly strong on atmosphere; but again it is the sheer virtuosity of the music and its execution that lingers longest in the memory. Anyone who thinks that the nominally unvarying sound of brass instruments might be a hindrance should listen to the central Largo assai. Butterworth's scoring of this frozen musical landscape is masterly - hushed lowering muted phrases lumber into each other with flecks of tuned percussion to lighten the gloom. Butterworth builds an imposing climax - something appearing out of the mists before being enveloped again. The control, technical and musical, of the Foden's Band players is a joy to hear. Dynamics are built with no apparent strain or hardening of tone. The closing Presto is a scampering compound-time showpiece - again Butterworth's innate understanding of just what players of this calibre can achieve ensures that for this listener this is a thrilling roller-coaster of a work. There seem not to be any discs dedicated exclusively to Butterworth's significant body of work for band - please can Doyen produce just such a disc.

Quite different but equally well realised for brass is Stan Nieuwenhuis' A King's Lie. Nieuwenhuis is a name new to me. He is a young Dutch-born, Belgium-bred composer with a background in brass band composition but also clear influences from contemporary/popular music. These influences are immediately apparent from the opening bars of the work. The title of the work is derived from the story of "Floire et Blanchflor" which exits in various Medieval Romances. Nieuwenhuis provides a narrative in the liner - and on his website at www.stannieuwenhuis.be/works/a-king-s-lie but to be honest the music exists very well independent of it. Nieuwenhuis's musical world is infused with jazz-rock rhythms and riffs which must be as enjoyable to play as they are challenging. To some degree I was reminded of an old disc I enjoyed a lot, entitled Triptychon by the German brass group; "Bach, Blech and Blues". They took a brass ensemble - in their case symphonic rather than band - but wrote for them in a big-band style. Nieuwenhuis' writing is a variant on this approach - he stays closer to the brass band idiom but with a strong rock/big-band influence. There is something cinematic in his writing too. I could imagine this music accompanying a bustling cityscape sequence - Hawaii 5-O goes to Yorkshire. Although the music plays continuously there are clearly defined sections. Where Butterworth's central panel was frozen menace Nieuwenhuis is sensual languor which the Foden players build to another cathartic climax. Michael Daugherty springs to mind with the driving percussion-led rock-derived riff that opens the third section. Superbly tight playing from all sections and the ever-excellent Doyen recording allows every line of the complex texture to register. Around the 10:30 point the style of the music alters radically, suddenly becoming more dissonantly harsh - I suspect this represents the narrative's trial of the young lovers which quickly dissolves into a rather cinematic "happy-ever-after" ending - tubular bells ringing out. In every way this is a sharp contrast to the Butterworth but one that either work can stand and in doing so again reinforces the range of music available to bands of this quality.

The last of the three original works is Granville Bantock's Prometheus Unbound written as a test piece for the 1933 (UK) National Finals. It could be argued that this is an arrangement, since the material was drawn by Bantock from his choral/orchestral work of the same title but the piece was conceived by the composer in this version for band. The work has been recorded before by the marvellous Black Dyke band on Chandos. Fine though that performance is and well recorded, it is superseded by this new version. Again, I find it fascinating how a composer best known for his large-scale lush orchestral scores starts to sound positively Wagnerian when played by brass alone. Although not as overtly virtuosic as any of the previous works on the disc this still makes substantial demands of the players in terms of intonation, blend and ensemble. As much as anything, this work is significant for how 'seriously' it treats the band idiom - something of a rarity in the 1930's when much of the repertoire still relied on potpourris and arrangements. Of course Bantock joined a growing group of mainstream composers, from Elgar to Holst and Vaughan Williams, who were willing to write music for the band medium. This Prelude is not explicitly narrative but in an almost operatic way sets the mood for a drama to come - at times there is an almost Verdian thrust to the music which finally gives way to a beautifully serene closing minute or so of music. I must admit I sometimes struggle with Bantock's heavy textures and fluid harmony but here the work and the medium combine to great effect.

The liner tells us that the young Britten was no better than third choice to write the incidental music for the 1937 BBC Radio Dramatisation of the life of King Arthur. Before him both Bax and Rutland Boughton were approached. Such was the success of Britten's score that in the decade that followed he was to writes a further twenty seven radio scores. I had never heard any of this music before - there is a recording by Richard Hickox for Chandos of extended excerpts. This current incarnation is a reworking by Paul Hindmarsh of four key sections; Overture, Galahad and the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Arthur and finally, The Death of Arthur. The first three sections run for around three minutes each and the closing death scene is just over five. I do not know how the excerpts are handled in the original [Hindmarsh's own liner says they are the most substantial of the score's original 22 cues] but Hindmarsh has skilfully fashioned a contiguous sequence of music neatly avoiding any sense of "bittyness" that can sometimes afflict similar suite of incidental music. The heraldic nature of the story gives Britten plenty of opportunity for trumpets and drums and flowingly ceremonial writing. Britten's intuitive dramatic skill - he was just 23 when he wrote this - is to find an idiom that is both gently 'modern' but somehow apt for this mythical tale.

There is more outstandingly virtuosic playing from this remarkable band to the degree that I am rapidly running out of superlatives! Hindmarsh fails to mention that the theme Britten uses at the opening of the 2nd movement Galahad and the Holy Grail is the same that he would use the following year (1938) in the 3rd movement Impromptu of his Piano Concerto – which Walton would in turn mine as the theme of his Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten. In the midst of all the red-blooded drama of this score it is a very beautiful interlude. Although I do not think it shares any thematic material, the closing Death of Arthur has the occasional echo of Britten's Russian Funeral - his only original work for band written the year before. Perhaps Hindmarsh deliberately referenced that work as a way of evoking Britten's soundworld here? Whatever the truth, this strikes me as a highly successful transcription of an impressive work - for sure the innocent ear would be hard pressed to recognise much of the mature Britten but it serves its purpose exceptionally well but at the same time succeeds as a stand-alone work.

Logically, since the benevolent shade of Wagner has been present through much of the disc, it closes with the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Rheingold. This is another virtuoso transcription, this time made by Howard Snell. By now it goes without saying that the band and the engineering accommodate the music with ease. Possibly for the only time on the disc I felt the basic tempo was just a tiny tad too quick. But again one can only marvel at the sheer facility of the playing - Snell's transcription spares the players little if any of the intricate inner part work and it is all there. A remarkably epic end to a hugely enjoyable disc.

Doyen really do have the art of recording these powerful brass ensembles off to a tee. Apart from the music worth of this disc the engineering is of demonstration quality with power and detail and sheer weight of instrumental tone all caught to perfection. The English-only liner is relative brief by stylishly presented and benefiting from notes by the composers or arrangers themselves where possible. The quality of this compilation can be discerned from the fact that I sincerely hope that Doyen and the Foden band under Michael Fowles will consider producing single-composer discs of Butterworth, Nieuwenhuis and Bantock. Any or all of those would be superb I am sure.

Music-making worthy of Gods and Kings.

Nick Barnard
 

 

 




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