Saturday 7 December 2019

Creating a counter-factual history of brass chamber music: I chat to Simon Cox & Matthew Knight from the brass-septet Septura

I first became aware of the brass septet, Septura, when noting their 2017/18 concert series Kleptomania at St John's Smith Square, and I went on to review their 2018 disc of Finzi, Elgar, Parry and Walton on Naxos. The group has just released a disc of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, and in February 2020 the group will be making its Wigmore Hall debut. I recently met up with Simon Cox and Matthew Knight from the Septura to find out more about their plans and to talk about their project to bring brass chamber music into the mainstream.

Simon Cox (trumpet) and Matthew Knight (trombone) are the artistic directors of Septura. The two do all of the group's arrangements, and they two feel that the new version of The Nutcracker has come out surprisingly well. Up until now, they have had a rule to not to do versions of orchestral scores, in fact with The Nutcracker they started with the piano duet version, but then added elements from the full score, and the piece changed their approach to arranging so that for Gershwin's An American in Paris, they have similarly used the piano version whilst taking bits of the full score.

Simon Cox
Simon Cox
They have been careful with their new transcriptions of pieces for the group because they do not want them to sound like arrangements, or reductions of an orchestral score. But lots of The Nutcracker fitted well, and they picked the suitable sections and omitted some movements which would not work. And they feel that it is possibly their most successful arrangement, so far.

The problem is that, if Septura performs a transcription of a piece that people know well, they can find it difficult to get used to the idea of the piece played by brass septet. For instance, the group plays a transcription of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, and one of their trombonists is married to a violinist who knew the original version and so took some time to accept the brass version. They admit that such transcriptions do not sound like the original, but the group brings their own qualities to the work. Simon and Matthew feel that this really does shine a light on the musical material.

The transcriptions are made for the full septet line-up, which helps to remove the stamina problems inherent in brass playing (the sheer amount of air needed to sustain the instrument). There would be such problem if a string quartet was arranged for brass quartet, having seven players means that the music can be spread around. Whilst the brass quintet line-up is ubiquitous, it can still be challenging playing complex arrangements with just five players.

In their transcriptions, Simon and Matthew use a different combinations of mutes to find different sounds and colours. So, when each of the seven players has four mutes, plus the open (mute-less) sound, this gives a huge number of colours. Of course, a player needs time to change the mute, and again spreading the material across seven players facilitates this.

One of the works they will be playing at the Wigmore Hall in February is a selection from Orlande de Lassus' sacred madrigals, Lagrime di San Pietro. This is a work full of the symbolism of seven, in seven parts, 21 (7x3) movements, which use seven of the eight modes (here Simon adds that they like deeper meanings, Septura's own logo in fact has a number of meanings to it!). The intention is to show that brass instruments can play serious chamber music. Of course, it is always possible to have a debate about the actual arrangements, but performing music like the Lassus or the Shostakovich quartet demonstrates their argument, even if you do prefer the original.

Matthew Knight
Matthew Knight
They have been building up a catalogue of transcriptions and arrangements, which they describe as an imagined history of brass chamber music and their intention is to end with contemporary composers writing for brass septet, and are keen to develop these relationships. This is very much because brass history, the 19th century, was a very self-contained world and Septura wants to be involved in the main-stream classical sphere. Some of this is difference is for technological reasons, modern brass instruments developed later than other orchestral instruments, and the quintet line-up only came into being in the 20th century.

But for Simon, the logical line-up is the orchestral brass section of three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, and by using this line-up for Septura Simon felt they were bringing the orchestral sound into chamber music.

The group has eleven members in total, all principal players in London orchestras (different orchestras, the idea being that if Septura plays they don't deprive a particular orchestra of its entire brass section!). Simon is principal trumpet with the Aurora Orchestra, whilst Matthew is co-principal trombone of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Having a pool of players means that with repertoire they know well, changing the line up keeps things fresh as they are reacting to different players.

For the Wigmore Hall performance One Equal Music, which is Septura's Wigmore Hall debut, they focus on two very different marginalised musical groups. Brass players in chamber music (their concert is a rare example of a brass chamber music group performing in the hall's main series) and women composers. The first half features music by Mendelssohn (a transcription of his Organ Sonata in C minor) and Clara Schumann (a transcription of her Piano Sonata in G minor), whilst the second half has the Lassus' Lagrime di San Pietro and madrigals by Maddalena Casulana (c1544-c1590, the first ever published female composer). In her writings Casulana lamented the position of women composers, and Simon and Matthew comment how little things seem to have changed in the intervening 400 years!

Septura is taking the One Equal Music programme on a 14-date tour of the USA before the Wigmore Hall performance. Simon and Matthew comment that there is nothing like a performance for crystalising a piece, subsequent performances are always very different to the first performance. They like doing runs of a programme not only to get used to it, but to enable them to be more spontaneous when performing it.

Simon always liked the idea of brass ensemble, and a period in Finland performing with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra gave him time to think. He decided he wanted to pursue the idea, but had never liked playing in a quintet, so inspired by the orchestral brass line-up he settled on seven players. He admits that repertoire is a matter of taste, but Simon and Matthew have more interest in serious classical music than the lighter side. Yet there is a huge gap, as serious brass chamber music does not really existing in the mainstream classical world. So to create a repertoire for Septura, they had a huge enterprise to fill the gap.

It was the record company, Naxos, that pushed them in a particular direction. Naxos was interested in a series of serious discs for brass and wanted each one focussed on a particular era or genre. From that the idea of a counter-factual history of brass chamber music arose. The idea brought coherence to the project to create repertoire and helped Septura develop musically as some of the pieces that they were looking at arranging were repertoire the players did not know before. In this, it helped to do a whole disc so that you immerse yourself in a particular period or style.

It means that they have built up a varied repertoire which can be used in programmes. But in concert, they programme a mixture of genres and styles, but usually tied to particular theme. The group has started increasing the number of substantial pieces it plays. Traditional brass programmes, in particular, can often be rather bitty, so the group likes doing longer works such as the Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.

The sheer physicality of playing brass instruments is something that non-brass players can easily forget, even using seven players when they first started doing a longer work like Tchaikovsky's Nutracker it was physically taxing, and when they first played through Gershwin's American in Paris which is 20 minutes long, at the end Matthew could barely hold his trombone. But the stamina and strength of every player has improved over time, so such works have become manageable. Similarly, Simon and Matthew do not try to make their arrangements technically difficult, but they do like to push boundaries. They comment that when the group first performed their transcription of William Walton's Sontata for Strings (which is on Volume Six of their Music for Brass Septet series on Naxos), it was one of the hardest things the group had done and required a lot of personal practice!

Their next disc in the Naxos series was recorded in November this year, a disc of Copland and Gershwin, two completely different sound-worlds and it means that their discs cover a big range from Bach and Palestrina right through to Copland and Gershwin. The new disc includes Copland's Appalachian Spring and Quiet City (where they were joined by a cor anglais player), and Gershwin's Three Preludes, and An American in Paris. This will be issued as volume seven of their series (with two further discs outside the series, a Christmas disc and The Nutcracker). There are three more discs to go in the planned series, but Simon and Matthew have plenty more ideas, and they have found Naxos very supportive indeed, and feel that few modern record companies would have taken on such a project of ten serious brass chamber music discs.

Septura (Photo Matthew Thistlewood 2015)
Septura (Photo Matthew Thistlewood 2015)
Collaboration is something that interests the group, so that they have worked with Sir Derek Jacobi as narrator in The Nutcracker and added a cor anglais for Copland's Quiet City, and they are hoping for many more such as they feel that this provides another way into brass chamber music for people. In fact, one of the hardest things that the group finds is getting people to listen to their repertoire in the first place.

Naxos' wide distribution network has meant that Septura has built up a big international profile through the discs, and the forthcoming tour to the USA is the group's second. In 2019, touring included New Zealand, Japan, Baltic countries as well as European ones. Whilst it is great to perform in the UK, brass chamber music is still something of a hard sell and is easier in the USA (though not entirely easy). Their Christmas Nutcracker concerts have sold out, but previously it has been difficult except in Japan where there seems to be great enthusiasm for the brass septet and they sell out large halls.

Like many brass players, Simon and Matthew were very much influenced by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the group which did so much to put brass chamber music on the map. Philip Jones was household name and the group had an international influence, but brass chamber music has not taken off so much since. But they also look a lot to players of other instruments for their musical influences. Matthew was a choral scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and the sense of musical involvement he felt there is something he brings to Septura, albeit with a very different repertoire.

Septura is resident at the Royal Academy of Music, which is very supportive of the group, and both Simon and Matthew teach there. They encourage students to have a critical approach to brass chamber music and work out solutions for themselves, rather than simply copying. And thanks to their international touring, brass septets are springing up over the world. Much of the music recorded by the group is published and available via the group's website, thus meaning that other groups can experiment with this repertoire.

As ever, there is the problem of getting permission for music in copyright, particularly as copyright holders often want to hear what the resulting transcription will sound like, before giving permission. So, the group has to invest a lot in any new version of a work in copyright.

The arranging is split between Simon and Matthew, they each work on sections and then share the results and have a series of conversations. Then comes the first rehearsal, and the players don't hold back! Simon and Matthew try to take most of the comments on board, it is at this point that serious changes might be made, even to the extent of transposing the entire piece. This does happen, certain keys don't work as well for brass instruments, so that having rehearsed The Nutcracker they decided transposing it down made more playable. A thread of changes can carry on through the rehearsal process, and sometimes after the first performance so that pieces are evolving.

Whilst they try to ensure that everyone has a voice in commenting on the arrangements, it saves a lot of time by starting with a concrete interpretation from Simon and Matthew, ensuring that all seven parts are on the same page, so to speak. When arranging for the group, they can vary between a strong brass sound and using lots of different colours, and sometimes they add other brass instruments such as a piccolo trumpet, flugel horn or euphonium, and in the Lassus madrigals they uses a smaller trombone.

The group has been going for five years, and it still feels like the beginning, that they have barely scratched the surface. A group of their former students are in their own septet, and they play all their own repertoire which Simon and Matthew see as fantastic.

  • Christmas with Septura - St George's Hall, Liverpool - 12 December 2019, tickets
  • Christmas with Septura - Champs Hill - 13 December 2019, sold out
  • One Equal Music - tour of USA - 6 to 23 February 2020, further details from Septura website
  • One Equal Music: Lassus, Casulana, Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann - Wigmore Hall - 27 February 2020, further details from Wigmore Hall 

Septura on Disc
  • Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Sir Derek Jacob, Septura - Naxos
  •  Christmas with Septura: Bach, Handel, Rachmaninov, Warlock - Naxos 
  • Music for Brass Septet 
    • Volume 6: Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton - Naxos
    • Volume 5: Faure, Ravel, Debussy - Naxos
    • Volume 4: Gabrieli, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria - Naxos
    • Volume 3: Shostakovich, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov - Naxos
    • Volume 2: Handel, Purcell, Rameau, Blow - Naxos
    • Volume 1: Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Schumann - Naxos
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  • Westminster Cathedral Choir at Choral at Cadogan  - concert review
  • Serenata Mexicana: engaging new music from Mexico (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Leaving us wanting more: Jamie Barton has the audience on the palm of her hand in this finely sung recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • As a young singer you definitely have to give yourself to patience: I chat to counter-tenor James Hall, currently in Handel's Rinaldo & looking forward to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream - interview 
  • Hearing anew: two contemporary quartets and an established classic in the Sacconi Quartet's programme at Kings Place (★★★★) - concert review
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