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Peter GRAHAM (b.1958)
On the Shoulders of Giants (2009) [15:50]
Radio City (2012) [9:32]
Meditation (2014) [4:17]
Paramount Rhapsody (2018) [4:32]
New York Movie - A Musical Narrative on Images by Edward Hooper (2018) 13:42]
Metropolis 1927 (2014) [15:42]
Dale Gerrard (narrator)
Philip Cobb (trumpet)
Peter Moore (trombone)
Richard Phillips (keyboards),
Black Dyke Band/Nicholas Childs, Stephen Cobb
rec. 2016-18, Morley Town Hall, Leeds, UK
NAXOS 8.573968 [64:01]

As is my wont with composers and their music which are new to me I like to listen for the first time with a wholly innocent ear - with no liner notes or pre-conceptions. Hence, it was something of a surprise to discover that Peter Graham's On the Shoulders of Giants opens with a transcription for brass band of the finale of Bruckner's Symphony No.8. And rather wonderful it is too. This is not the only occasion Graham quotes or alludes to other specific pieces or genres or indeed performers in the music performed on this disc. I am not sure all the tributes are equally successful. What is certainly not in doubt is the staggering quality both individually and collectively of the Black Dyke Band under the direction of Nicholas Childs. Technically this exceeds any possible superlatives and musically the players are on that same exalted level - as are the guest soloists, trumpeter Philip Cobb and trombonist Peter Moore.

I have written regularly about the calibre of contemporary band music and performance and this disc underlines those qualities. Graham's music - as presented here at least - does not aspire to the complexity of thought and seriousness of utterance of say Edward Gregson in The Trumpets of the Angels or John Pickard in Black Castles. But in this programme that is clearly not his goal. This is music to celebrate aspects of popular or contemporary culture in a way that is instantly attractive and appealing - as well as being technically dazzling. The giants in the three movement work mentioned above are first the brass section of the Chicago Symphony - hence the Bruckner in the opening Fanfares, then jazz giants Miles Davis and Tommy Dorsey in the central Elegy and finally virtuosi from the original Sousa band in the closing Fantasie brillante. The movement titles really say it all. Graham has a penchant for setting out a long phrased line which he subsequently decorates or directly contrasts with increasingly complex, fast moving rhythmic and syncopating music. It makes for hugely demanding and very intricate part writing for all the instruments of the band. The central Elegy demonstrates Graham's skill for evoking hauntingly poignant musical images. After the thick and dynamic scoring of the opening movement this is a sparsely-scored meditation based on the Spiritual Steal away. There are beautiful solos taken by both trumpet and trombone in this movement by band members - who are pretty stellar in their own right and which serves to show the remarkable level of the playing across the board. The closing Fantasie brillante is of description-defying brilliance, leaving me with simply laugh-out loud admiration. Aside from the superlative playing it also demonstrates that Graham is a magnificent writer for band - you have to understand how to write like this for the instruments involved to dare to write music of this outrageous difficulty. I loved this piece - a stunning curtain raiser.

Next comes another 3 movement suite; Radio City which features the solo trombone of Peter Moore. This was inspired by Graham picking up short-wave broadcasts from across the Atlantic when growing up in Scotland. The titles are again very evocative and pretty much self-explanatory; City Noir, Cafe Rouge (after a venue in New York from which Glen Miller often broadcast), and finally Two-minute mile which is intended to evoke a hectic blue-grass Kentucky-Derby mad gallop. All good so far - again imaginative scoring superbly played. But, and it's a but I mention with a heavy heart, Graham has included a spoken text to introduce and speak over each movement. I am actually one of those people who quite enjoyed narrated pieces but here the text is pretty dire. It was written by Philip Coutts for this piece. Neither the liner nor anything online gives me any inkling as to Mr Coutts' background but my real problem is that each of his texts seem intent on bringing together every potential narrative cliché possible whether it is sub-Philip Marlow, a hyper-active radio announcer or finally a race-course commentator. Musically it seems to make Graham want to illustrate the text in a fairly clichéd way too. The final nail hammered into the coffin is that the text is spoken by a young actor Dale Gerrard who does what he can but his generic all-points-west American accent cannot evoke the weariness of a Sam Spade (his voice sounds too young and too tenor-pitched) or the hyper-excitement of the commentator. The playing is absolutely gorgeous and there is some lovely music too but this is a major disappointment. The overlap of sound effects, texts and the music is minimal in Two minute mile which is a real romp of a piece - somehow evoking a Leroy Anderson kind of helter-skelter chase - with more remarkable solo trombone work.

Sadly, the same forces come together for another piece with almost exactly the same negative impact later on the disc - New York movie. This is sub-titled "a musical narrative on images by Edward Hooper" but again I find the text trite, its execution no more than adequate and the illustrative nature of the accompanying music disappointing - "...commuter trains clattering in..." cue train music .... yes I get it.

This leaves three other works to consider and I enjoyed them much more than those two narrated works. Meditation is a tribute to three former LSO trumpet principals who also played lead cornet for Black Dyke; Willie Lang, Rod Franks and Maurice Murphy. Only right then that the leading part is allotted to the current holder of that chair, Philip Cobb. The writing for both Cobb and Moore intertwines beautifully above and around the rich harmonic bed of the band. One little phrase out of John Williams' Superman peeks around a musical corner which, given Graham's delight in the surreptitious quote, I suspect is by design rather than accident.

The reflective mood makes a good contrast and interlude before Paramount Rhapsody. The tribute here is to Harry James who debuted with the Benny Goodman band at the Paramount Theatre in 1927. Picking up on James' signature cross-over style of quoting from classical pieces there are various references to everything from The hall of the Mountain King to a near-enough Flight of the bumblebee. Cobb's solo playing is outrageously bravura yet relaxed and he moves between the 'classical' and 'jazz' elements of the score with ease. Again this is hugely entertainingly encore-style music which would bring down any house. Together with New York Movie this disc represents its world première.

For the closing Metropolis 1927 Graham acknowledges in the liner that he uses "..a Gershwin/Bernstein-esque New York lingua franca". It was commissioned in 2014 for the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. I bet those young players loved playing this as much as it was daunting to prepare. Graham again writes in multiple sections that seem replete with extra-musical imagery from a smokey late night bar, mechanistic machine rooms, and bustling cityscapes. But this is all the better for the listener not being given these images on a narrated plate. The inspiration was Fritz Lang's visionary film "Metropolis" - but this work should be seen as an impression of this film rather than a specific score to accompany it. As with the other works presented here, Graham delights in writing sharply contrasted music which moves from reflective stasis to epic dynamic climaxes via thrillingly kinetic passages. At its considerable best the music communicates instantly and appealingly - for sure all the works on this disc have a populist feel - but are none the worse for that given the high degree of skill both in composition and execution.

The recordings in a single venue have been spread across a couple of years but are very consistent in terms of their technical quality. The engineering is very good with the detail and dynamic range well caught. The solo parts are well integrated into the overall band sound-stage too. Morely town hall is a frequent venue for the band - the production team appears to be the same as for the Doyen discs recorded there so you know you are in the best possible hands as far as the sound of the band is concerned.

So something of a mixed response to this disc. The playing, engineering and music making throughout is of the highest order. I really enjoyed much of the music and the wit and skill of the writing. If Radio City and New York Movie existed in narration and sound effect-free versions I would undoubtedly enjoy them more too. As it stands, something of a mixed bag.

Nick Barnard

 




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