Filling in a neglected corner


Victoria Brass

Move Records MCD 641

Brass bands don’t come across your path every day, least of all in these times when they are commonly associated with the military rather than a company that actually makes something rather than weapons. Growing up in Sydney, I came across none except the rancid collection of bugles and side drums that marched in front of our school’s cadet unit. In Melbourne, the Box Hill City and the Kew bands were far more prominent, notably on civic occasions. But, until now, Victoria Brass has not even been a name, as far as my experience has gone. It presents as a conglomerate of players from various sources in the state (chiefly, the city of Melbourne, it appears), gathered together on particular occasions; this disc records several of those – concerts that took place at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Brighton, Box Hill Salvation Army Hall, Ian Roach Hall at Scotch College, and Bendigo’s Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral.

In fact, there are two sets of personnel recorded here – one from 2021 (Bendigo and Brighton), the other from 2022 (Box Hill and Scotch). You will find a few variations across the year space. Soprano cornet and principal cornet remain the same, while the four solo cornets are all different, as is the repiano cornet. All second cornets remain the same, one of the three third cornets remains the same, and the flugelhorn is taken by two separate players. All horns and euphoniums remain the same, but the 2022 line-up has a second euphonium. The solo baritone part falls to two different players and the second baritone set-up shares one player – but the second baritone in 2021 becomes the solo in 2022!. The solo trombone stays the same over the years, but only one of the second trombones survives, and the bass trombone player changes between discs. Tuba personnel stay the same, apart from an extra B flat player in the 2022 recordings. Finally, percussionist numbers change from five in 2021 to three in the following year; in the latter, there are two survivors and the fifth-named in 2021 plays among the third cornets in 2022! In short, it’s a slightly claustrophobic little world and I haven’t noted all the benched/interchange players – just the obvious ones.

As for what they play, the 2021 ensemble present the Toccata that concludes Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5, an arrangement of the Benedictus from Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man Mass, another arrangement of the fourth movement to Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, a version of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, Handel Parker’s hymn Deep Harmony, and Philip Wilby’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Story of John Bunyan). From the next year come the premiere of Andrew Batterham’s Trumpet Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal, David Elton, as soloist; Tallis’s Third Mode Melody (‘Why fumeth in the fight’); the finale to the ballet Checkmate by Bliss, Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in Sleep, Jared McCunnie’s Elegy, and part of the Cathedral Square Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. In other words, half of the tracks for each of the combinations.

As far as I can tell, the fount of all wisdom for all of these tracks is Matthew van Emmerick, an expert director and euphonium specialist who is Victoria Brass’s principal conductor. His soloists are trumpeter Elton, organist Calvin Bowman (the Musicke Master at Brighton’s Anglican church), and singer/narrator Matthew Little who shines in the Bunyan biography.

Some of the music performed is taxing in terms of clear production, particularly under live performance conditions. But there are a few tracks which are straight and uncomplicated, like the several hymn tunes where the demands are mostly for an even dynamic and a secure top line. Still, the Brass get off to an impressive start with the Widor toccata, beloved of wedding organists throughout the Western world. The division of labour in handling those right-hand arpeggios from the original is cleverly accomplished; the top cornets taking the left-hand chords while an active gaggle share the accompanying unbroken semiquaver-figure (or do they? Later on, one instrument alone handles this figure); soon, the bass entry at bar 9 with the composer’s striding pedal line is most impressive. In fact, Bowman takes some part in this arrangement by Philip Sparke, his organ contribution an addition by Philip Wilby, although you’re hard pressed to pick it out – perhaps the sumptuous bass line from bar 50 on? Certainly, he isn’t called upon to provide those incessant semiquavers when the score moves outside the top brass’s range.

Batterham’s concerto in this band accompaniment version is a fine example of expert and sympathetic writing for soloist and a brisk revamping of the original orchestration for strings. While the composer might well be a master of various genres (as claimed in the CD booklet), this piece is written in something I can only call contemporary orthodoxy, not varying much from the kind of jaunty dissonance (not too much) to be found in British composers of a century ago. For example, the middle movement is a flowing, lyrical andante with plenty of Elgarian warmth in its chord progressions and calm suggestions of the organ loft, as well as a graceful economy of melody.

Like the quick declamations of the opening movement, the third forges a bright path for all, right from the start with its pizzicato strummings supporting a fresh-faced 6/8 solo arc, with a wood-block clicking quietly during one of the episodes and a timpani/bass drum emerging in the finale’s later stages. But, as with all good concertos, the emphasis sits firmly on Elton’s solo line which has an attractively jaunty character in the score’s outer pages and a dexterity that you’d expect from the work’s prime executant. Not much of gravity is being expressed here but the work stands as a more-than-worthy addition to a repertoire which is not that substantial; it’s probably not true, but the last trumpet concerto written by an Australian composer that I can recall is Raymond Hanson’s product of 1948! That can’t be right, can it?

Not much to report about the Tallis arrangement by New Zealand cornet/conductor Ken Smith. He gives three iterations of the theme as outlined in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia with pretty orthodox harmonizations, the second heavy on lower brass and a few cadential descants for the cornets in verses 2 and 3 with a somewhat superfluous Amen added by way of conclusion. Eric Ball’s highly active arrangement of the Finale to Bliss’s ballet becomes something of a broad-beamed melange before the block chords denoting the Red King’s last stand, and there are a few messy notes in subsidiary lines near the movement’s opening. But the aggressive last pages are confidently carried off.

Starring in Tony Small’s arrangement of Jenkins’ Benedictus is euphonium soloist Michael Wells who gives the original’s solo cello line a welcome infusion of clarity and an absence of swooping and near-glissandi that can cripple the work’s innate sensibility. As well, you would go some way to find a moment as powerful as the Hosanna explosion in this reading. But it’s easy playing, I think, for both soloist(s) and ensemble, with nothing of great technical moment apart from maintaining dynamic control. And, as when listening to Lloyd Webber’s Requiem (and in certain phases of Britten’s War Requiem), it strikes me that the emotional effect is too simple, too calculated to manipulate; but then, I think that about the In gloria Dei Patris of the Missa Solemnis and nearly everything in the Verdi Requiem.

Another Wilby arrangement comes with the Saint-Saens Maestoso – Allegro with Bowman kicking off all our Babe memories. The arrival of that noble main theme almost works except for the organ dynamic level which is not loud enough to complement the ensemble taking on the strings’ announcement of the chorale; also, the piano four-hands scintillations here are sorely missed. A good deal of the movement is omitted; just as well, as the absence of woodwind and string timbres would be very noticeable if Wilby had stuck to the original’s grandiose self-indulgent repetitions. As well, without the original instrumentation, organ and brass are a tad disjunct as far as tuning is concerned, especially in the fortissimo pesante section at Letter GG in my International Music Company 1950 reprint score, Again, you can hear some high notes fluffed if you listen hard enough, and the tempo seems to be rather ham-fisted – insistent, regular, lacking much elasticity.

I liked the simplicity of Esenvalds’ setting of Sara Teasdale’s gentle poem; his melody is folk-simple and the rich choral fabric under the soprano soloist impresses for its timbral depth and suggestions of consolation, even when the choir takes over in the work’s centre. In this arrangement by Phillip Littlemore, the Brass’s flugel horn, Andrew McAdam, substitutes for the solo voice and the results are pleasing, especially as an instance of a sustained melody enunciated seamlessly and with emotional restraint.

Wilby’s own work celebrating Bunyan impresses for its vision, even if the identification of the Puritan writer with his own Christian seems ingenuous. This work begins with an unaccompanied male voice singing Who would true valour see/He who would valiant be to Vaughan Williams’ setting of the melody line – all three stanzas. Having accomplished this, Matthew Little then starts on a set of read excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress with musical illustrations: The Journey, Meditation, Vanity Fair, and The Celestial City. In other words, we are given a selection from the writer’s narrative as the hero is divested of his burden and journeys to his transfigured end.

You hear traces of the hymn tune early in the suite but, of course, it comes into its own when the pilgrim arrives at his destination. As illustrative music, the work meets expectations, notably in the rapid hurly-burly of Vanity Fair. The Brass are agile and solemnly stentorian in turn but there isn’t a good deal of audience challenge in The Pilgrim’s Progress as a musical experience. It’s probably more intriguing for brass players. Nevertheless, the work has appeal as an illustration of how to score for brass and organ in four separate scenarios.

Melbourne composer Jared McCunnie’s Elegy is part of a larger work, SIEGE, which deals with the Martin Place Lindt cafe disaster of December 2014. The score ends with this movement which commemorates the two victims: Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, the latter dying from police-generated shrapnel in one of the more cack-handed terrorism-related incidents of modern times. This movement is calm, slow-moving, rising to a powerful climax before dying out into unforgiving silence. McCunnie’s language is uncomplicated and earnest in emotional character, his elegy doubling as a lament for the waste of two useful lives.

I can’t remember when I first heard Sullivan’s very popular song; probably in my teens when all I knew of the composer were some of the Savoy operas. It isn’t as off-putting as many another wrenching Victorian-era gem of religiosity and there’s a good deal to be said for performing it in arrangement, like this excellent version by notable British brass band expert, Gordon Langford, which gains a great deal from Bowman’s organ in Brighton. A very truncated version of the Kremlin coronation from Mussorgsky’s opera (another Littlemore construct) seems to conflate two segments, leaving out the self-torturing aria that the Tsar sings to himself while the crowd and boyars are apparently otherwise occupied. You can hear an uncertain cornet wandering at one stage and there’s some rough trombone work later, but you get the general flavour of the scene, with even a break for a carillon. All very exciting but, sadly, a pale echo of the real thing.

The disc concludes with a flawless reading of Handel Parker’s hymn, arranged by American academic Lee Harrelson. Apparently, Victoria Brass uses this four-part harmonization as a rehearsal warm-up and it makes a modestly rich-flavoured ending to the ensemble’s endeavours. To be honest, I prefer the sense and stability of such slower tracks on this recording to the frenetic or heftier offerings, although the Bliss Checkmate is a stand-out. Like a good many other musical observers, I’ve not encountered a brass band in the normal run of concert-going; this product by Victoria Brass shows that the loss has been a significant one, made all the more telling by my grandson’s enrolment this year as a trumpet student at the Victorian College of the Arts; I feel that my ignorance of brass literature and performance practice is about to be remorselessly filled in.

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