Tuesday 27 September 2022

Much more than niche repertoire: Tredegar Band's Vaughan Williams on Brass

Vaughan Williams on Brass; Ross Knight, Tredegar Town Band, Ian Porthouse, Martyn Brabbins; ALBION
Vaughan Williams on Brass; Ross Knight, Tredegar Town Band, Ian Porthouse, Martyn Brabbins; ALBION
Reviewed 26 August 2022 (★★★★)

A brilliantly engaging and imaginative look at RVW's brass music, mixing the original works with both new arrangements and new versions of old favourites, all superbly played

Vaughan Williams didn't write all that much for brass band, though the medium has come to be more associated with his music thanks to arrangements of RVW's works for military band. On this disc from Albion Records, Tredegar Town Band records a selection of RVW for brass, works originally written for brass such as Henry Fifth and Variations for Brass Band, works originally written for military band such as the English Folk Songs Suite and works more usually performed in other versions such as the Tuba Concerto. Conducting honours are shared between Ian Porthouse, the band's artistic director, and Martyn Brabbins (who conducts The Truth from Above, Prelude on Rosymedre and Variations for Brass Band).

Whilst Britain's brass band tradition stretches back to the 19th century (the history of Tredegar Town Band can be traced to 1849), it took time for British composers to routinely write for the genre. Elgar and Holst were amongst the composers who wrote test pieces for the National Brass Band Championships between the two wars and Holst's 1928 contribution, A Moorside Suite, is arguably the first masterpiece for the medium. 

Vaughan Williams was something of a late convert. His overture Henry the Fifth, from 1933/4, does not seem to have sprung from any great conviction and it would not be until the 1950s that RVW wrote his major piece for the medium, the Variations for Brass Band which was written for the 1957 National Championship Finals.

We begin with the short Flourish for Band, an occasional piece written for military band in 1939 for an event at the Royal Albert Hall. Performed once and left in manuscript until Roy Douglas edited it in 1971, this is a new brass band version. A robust work that is at once pure RVW and very idiomatic for brass band.

RVW's English Folk Songs Suite is based on music for military bands written for the Pageant of London in 1910. Holst and Frank Bridge were similarly commissioned, and Holst would reuse the material for his First Suite for military band. Perhaps the success of this, and Holst's second suite, encouraged RVW to do something similar. English Folk Songs Suite was premiered in 1923 by the band of the Royal School of Military Music, Kneller Hall, which had premiered Holst's suites. The work was originally arranged for brass band in 1956, transposing the music down. Here, a new arrangement returns the work to its original keys.

The piece works supremely well for brass band, perhaps because the adaptation from military band is not huge. So, we have the wonderfully breezy Seventeen Come Sunday, yet with lovely delicate moments and those delightful pieces of counterpoint. My Bonny Boy gives us a fine cornet solo, developing into a simply lovely bit of subtle band writing. The pot pourri finale goes along with a delightful swagger and certainly puts a smile on your face.

The suite was originally intended to have four movements, and the missing movement is now Sea Songs, published separately in 1924 and again heard in a new brass band arrangement restoring the original keys. We are in the same world here, and I do hope that this new version might make us hear the work more often. RVW treats the sea songs with great breeziness and this is captured by the players, but with a fine attention to detail.

Henry the Fifth might have written his overture for brass band for an occasion like the Abinger Pageant in 1934, but there is no record of performance till the 1970s and there was certainly no follow-up work for brass band. This is a fine, large-scale piece and the suggestion that RVW was just getting used to writing for brass band is swept away by the joy of hearing a piece of rarely performed mature RVW.

The Truth from Above is a new arrangement by Paul Hindmarsh based on RVW's use of the carol in his choral music, a lovely piece full of quiet expressivity that forms a neat counterpart to the next work on the disc. Prelude on Rhosymedre is the second of RVW's Three Preludes for Organ founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes published in 1920. This arrangement was made in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. Highly effective, it brings an interestingly different range of colours and timbres to the work.

Paul Hindmarsh devised this brass band Suite from 49th Parallel, heard here in an arrangement by Phillip Littlemore, which takes music from the 1941 film, one of a number of film scores that the composer wrote at the period. This is a substantial work, nearly 15 minutes long, and gives us RVW in symphonic mode yet transferred to brass. The work showcases the players brilliantly, and they capture the sometimes eerie and evocative nature of much of this music, though there are stirring moments too.

We return to Welsh hymn tunes for Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes written for brass band in 1954. Here we feel RVW writing idiomatically for brass band yet still remaining true to his style from the period. A little gem.

RVW's late symphonic music includes a fascination with unusual timbres. The short Tuba Concerto was written in 1954 for the golden jubilee of the London Symphony Orchestra. On this disc of brass music, it seems fitting that the concerto should come 'home' in this arrangement by Philip Littlemore with soloist Ross Knight (solo tuba player of l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande).

By putting the soloist with a brass band, we lose any vestige of the comic which can beset this work. Ross Knight turns in a finely lyrical and highly flexibly account of the first movement, neatly backed by the band who move between RVW in jolly mode to the more thoughtful. The slow movement is simply a beautiful lyrical moment for all concerned, and then the final is a wonderful jeu d'esprit.

We end with RVW's 1956 masterwork for brass band, the Variations for Brass Band. Here a new edition has been made, returning to the composer's manuscript and correcting the myriad errors in the original printed score of 1957. This is a remarkable piece of late symphonic RVW that is hardly known at all. Like Holst did back in 1928, RVW demonstrates the remarkable emotional range that the medium is capable of, allied to a remarkable mix of timbres and textures.

This disc has cast its net far and wide, but such is the skill of the arrangements (Paul Hindmarsh and Phillip Littlemore are the arrangers and music editors for the disc), the choice of repertoire and the sheer technical brilliance of the playing, that you can simply listen to this disc as a rattling good programme of RVW on brass instruments without worrying about what is original and what is arranged. This certainly is far more than niche repertoire.

Vaughan Williams on Brass
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Flourish for Band
Ralph Vaughan Williams - English Folk Songs Suite
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Sea Songs
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Henry the Fifth
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Truth from Above
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Prelude on Rosymedre
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Suite from 49th Parallel
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Tuba Concerto in F minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Variations for Brass Band
Ross Knight (tuba)
Tredegar Town Band
Ian Porthouse (conductor)
Marytn Brabbins (conductor)
Recorded Brangwyn Hall, Swansea on 4-5 December 2021 and 25 March 2022

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