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Edward GREGSON (b.1945) The Music of Edward Gregson - Volume 6
Dances & Arias (1984) [13:18]
Cornet Concerto (2016) [24:25]
Four Études* (2016) [9:26]
Patterns (1974) [5:16]
The Trumpets of the Angels (2000 rev. 2016) [21:02]
Richard Marshall (cornet) Black Dyke Band/Nicholas Childs, Edward Gregson*
rec. 2016, Morley Town Hall, Yorkshire, England DOYEN DOYCD369 [73:27]
I have to admit to be struggling a little with this disc. Previously I reviewed Volume 5 in this series and was completely overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the music, engineering and playing. So much so that it made my 2014 disc of the year shortlist. My dilemma with Volume 6 is how to write a new review without repeating all the same superlatives! It really is that good again. The music might be different but the quality remains staggeringly high. I would be loath to name any performance of any work as definitive, but there is a definite sense that this series of Doyen discs must surely be considered as reference recordings. Can many living composers (or indeed any) be so blessed as to have a substantial portion of their catalogue available in such superb performances?
Likewise, the modern brass band movement is lucky to have a contemporary composer who consistently expands the repertoire of the genre with such compelling and impressive new works. The range of styles Gregson covers is also striking. From the muscular energy of the opening Dances and Arias, through the 'simpler' but very effective Cornet Concerto to a reworking of one of my favourite Gregson works for band, the Messiaen-inspired The trumpets of the Angels.
To avoid this review becoming a catalogue of hyperbola, I will say just once that the level of playing throughout is of head-spinning brilliance both from solo players and in ensemble. Likewise, the Doyen engineers have become past-masters at recording brass ensembles with maximum impact - the sound floor is wide and deep, the dynamic range thrilling and the balance between detail and weight of ensemble is ideal.
The disc hits the deck running with the excitingly vigorous Dances and Arias. Paul Hindmarsh contributes another superbly illuminating liner note and I can do no better than to quote him; "[this work] reflects the composer's career-long exploitation of dance forms .... also new innovations and fresh challenges to the band contest stage". As with all the music on this disc, Gregson writes in a tonal idiom which allows the listener to gain a good immediate sense of 'where the music goes' but at the same time with sufficient freedom in his handling of form and tonality that in no way do any of the works sound at all tired or old-hat. Allied to his sure sense of form and tonality, Gregson's scores are quite brilliantly written for the ensemble both in a solo and collective sense. Hindmarsh points out that Gregson makes more extended use of the percussion section than is often required by bands - especially tuned percussion – which gives a beautiful metallic halo, often with bell-like textures, to the band's sound. The other enduring and impressive characteristic of this music is its rhythmic vitality. These scores absolutely crackle with syncopating energy that is as exhilarating to listen to as it must be to play.
Gregson has written numerous concertante scores and the 2016 Cornet Concerto is one of the latest. The soloist then, as here on the work's premiere studio recording, was the band's principal cornet, Richard Marshall. He plays gloriously. Throughout the disc, but especially in this concerto the 'cleanness' of the playing from both soloist and ensemble is a joy to hear. Added to that, Marshall plays with beautiful sensitivity and seemingly superhuman control of line and phrase. The central Intermezzo features a truly memorable melody that ascends to stratospheric heights that Marshall surmounts with seeming ease. The subtitle to this movement is (....of more distant memories), which is a variant of the title Gregson gave to a work "Of Distant Memories" featured in volume 5 of this series of discs. This is due to the thematic linkage between the works, which in turn points up another reason for the success of all these works across the entire series. Gregson's compositional approach to writing for band is rigorous and serious. Clearly, he applies as much care to the 'evolution' of the music within these scores as he would in any other genre. This does not preclude the music being emotionally engaging or intellectually rewarding for the listener but it does give the scores a weight and rigour that ensure they benefit from repeated listening.
This is very evident in the Four Etudes also from 2016. The title of the whole work – and indeed the movement titles within it – is a deliberate echo of Stravinsky's work of the same name. As Gregson points out, where Stravinsky reworked some string quartet music, he has revisited a set of 3 piano pieces from 1982. Bell textures again prove to be a recurring motif and they are brought back at the end of work in the closing 4th movement Aleppo, which was written as the composer's response to events unfolding in the city at the time of composition. This is overtly aggressive if not bleak music where the closing bars offer some semblance of hope by returning to the opening chords and bells.
The disc closes with my favourite band work by Gregson; the remarkable The trumpets of the Angels. This work featured on Vol.4 of the series and the reason for its inclusion here too is that this is a new and significantly different performing edition. The original work, written in 2000, was in turn a revisiting of music and indeed a concept explored in his short choral work ... And the Seven trumpets.... By 2000 this had become an epic twenty minute work - I use the description advisedly - for band, seven solo trumpets and organ. In the 2016 revision the key difference is the removal of the organ with a sung "Kyrie Eleison" in its place. In this new recording no singers are credited so I imagine this is given to band members to sing. In either version this is a quite remarkable, powerful and indeed moving work. The quality of the new performance is again of staggering quality. But, if I had to choose a single version, I would opt for the original. The work is inscribed "in tribute to Olivier Messiaen" and although wholly original, without doubt it shares a sound-world with the older composer. And since that composer made such use of the organ, its addition to the original and omission in the revision is apt in one and is disappointing in the other. Another factor to consider - I am not sure where the original version was recorded but it sounds as if it were a more generous – church? – acoustic, with the organ powerfully integrated in the band texture. The antiphonal trumpets – with more than a hint of Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra – also sit well within this bigger recorded space. As mentioned before, this new recording is technically magnificent but somehow the previous disc's engineering emphasises the theatricality of the work to even greater effect. Important to say, though, that any admirer of Gregson's music will want to have both recordings.
As mentioned, Volume 5 in this series featured as one of my discs of the year and I would be surprised if this volume were not to follow suit. A magnificent achievement by all concerned.