Friday 25 November 2016

Re-discovering the saxhorn: The Celebrated Distin Family

The Celebrated Distin Family - Prince Regent's Band - Resonus Classics
Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Fauconnier, Donizetti, Gretry, Verdi, Henry Distin, John Distin, Handel, James Kent, Arne, Theodore Distin; The Prince Regent's Band; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Music and technology collide creatively in the recreation of the repertoire of the mid-19th century Distin family

I hadn't heard of the Distin family until I received this latest CD from Resonus Classics. The Celebrated Distin Family (released 1/12/2016) performed by The Prince Regent's Band reconstructs the repertoire of a famous 19th century brass ensemble, playing the music on instruments of the day. This means that the performers, Richard Fomison, Richard Thomas, Anneke Scott, Phil Dale and Jeff Miller, perform music by Meyerbeer, Berlioz, Fauconnier, Donizetti, Gretry, Verdi, Henry Distin, John Distin, Handel, James Kent, Arne, and Theodore Distin, on a range of cornets and saxhorns. (See my recent interview with Anneke Scott where we talk about playing the saxhorn, and rediscovering the repertoire on the disc).

The Prince Regent's Band
The Prince Regent's Band
Between 1835 and 1857 the members of the Distin family, John Distin (1798-1863) and his sons  George, Henry, William and Theodore performed as The Celebrated Distin Family. The family ensemble toured both the UK and abroad and it was in Paris that they met the celebrated inventor Adolphe Sax  (1814-1894). As well as inventing the saxophone, Sax had come up with a whole family of brass instruments, saxhorns; designed for band use they were intended to provide a uniformity of approach and timbre across the range. Somehow (reports vary) the Distins acquired a set and their use of them, combined with an imaginative approach to the repertoire, helped to popularise the instruments.

Effectively, the Distin's helped to create the traditional British brass band repertoire, but rather ironically not much of the Distin's repertoire has survived in full score. So this disc uses a handful of works by members of the Distin family (which survive in short score), some of Adophe Sax's own arrangements for saxhorns and music of the day which is known to have been played by the family. Apart from the Sax arrangements, the music is all played in arrangements by members of The Prince Regent's Band.

The instruments used vary between the different arrangements. But it is necessary to beware that saxhorns have different names in French and English so that the soprano saxhorn in French is the English contralto! Some of the repertoire, particular the English pieces, called for cornets on the top line rather than saxhorns and at one point Anneke Scott plays a ventil horn which was actually made by Distin.

Part of the process for the performers involved the exploration of their instruments and what they could do, creating arrangements in dynamic process. The necessity of creating arrangements is something that would be familiar to players in a modern brass quintet, but is rather less usual for period instrument players (the members of the band play with many of the major period instrument groups). Anneke Scott described it as 'one of the most exciting and creative experiences I’ve been involved in'.

Modern brass groups owe a great deal to the Distin family, both for the creation of repertoire and the promotion of Sax's new instruments, and members of the saxhorn family (such as the tenor horn) are still used in brass bands. And what the disc gives us is a lovely glimpse into the early history of the brass band, and much of the repertoire on disc will be familiar (in style at least) to those who enjoy listening to brass band music.

But there is a difference, the very particular quality which the period instruments bring. The saxhorn has a very mellow sound and, intentionally, blends well with other brass instruments so that what we have here is a lovely rich mellow sound (many of the instruments will also be of narrow bore than their modern equivalents). Some of the pieces put a real smile on the face, notably those by members of the Distin family and by Adolph Sax, they are very much period pieces. And it is startling at first to come across Verdi's Requiem arranged for brass ensemble!

Overall this is a fascinating exploration of a genre and a group of instruments. Not everyone will want to listen regularly to this particular combination of pieces, but there is no denying the superb musicianship of the members of The Prince Regent's Band, nor the importance of the Distin family.

The Prince Regent's Band's website has a lovely selection of videos introducing the various instruments they play, the repertoire and the Distin family, well worth exploring. You can read more about the creation of this disc in my recent interview with Anneke Scott.

The Prince Regent's Band is playing at Kensington Palace as part of the Christmas celebrations there, performing Victorian carols and seasonal music, between 27 December and 2 January at regular slots during the day, see the Kensington Palace website for times and further details.

The Celebrated Distin Family
Giacomo Meyerbeer - Coronation March (arr. Anneke Scott)
Hector Berlioz - Chante Sacre (arr. Anneke Scott)
Benoit Constant Fauconnier - Quatuor (arr Adolphe Saxe)
Gaetano Donizetti - Trio (Ah sole, piu ratto from Lucia di Lammermoor) (arr Adolphe Saxe)
Andre Gretry - Trio (Une fievre brulante from Richard Coeur de Lyon)
Giuseppe Verdi - Fragments melodiques sur 'Messe de Requiem de Verdi' (arr. Jean-Baptiste Arban, arr. Richard Thomas)
Henry Distin - Distin's Polka (arr Phil Dale)
John Distin - Distin's Military Quadrilles (arr Richard Fomison)
George Frideric Handel - Let the Bright Seraphim (from Samson) (arr Anneke Scott)
James Kent - Blessed be Thou Lord  God of Israel (arr Anneke Scott)
Thomas Arne - Rule Britannia (from Alfred) (arr Henry Leslie, arr. Anneke Scott)
Traditional - The Last Rose of Smmmer (arr. Theodore Distin, arr. Phil Dale)
Theodore Distin - Victory (arr Anneke Scott)
Giuseppe Verdi - Sinfonia from Nabucco (arr Phil Dale)
The Prince Regent's Band (Richard Fomison, Richard Thomas, Anneke Scott, Phil Dale and Jeff Miller)
Recorded at The Ascension Church, Plumstead, 30 June & 1-2 July 2016
RESONUS RES10179 1CD [55.40]
The disc is released on 1/12/2017, and is available from

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