CBSO – LIVE at the Centre – A Toast to the Twenties: English Brass

Fanfare No. 5, F84, ‘Wedding Fanfare’ (1960)
A Moorside Suite, H173 (1928)
Symphony for Brass, Op. 123 (1978)
A Downland Suite (1932)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Michael Seal

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 October, 2020
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

This afternoon’s programme of English music for brass, second in the City of Birmingham Symphony’s post-lockdown concerts, opened with the no-nonsense ceremonials of a fanfare for Princess Margaret’s wedding by Arthur Bliss; a reminder of those many such occasional pieces he wrote over his 22 years as Master of the Queen’s Music, as well as an association with this orchestra that saw his Meditations on a Theme by John Blow as a first commission from the Feeney Trust in 1955 and the CBSO’s first stereo recording just over a decade later.

Gustav Holst enjoyed a close relationship with the CBSO in the 1920s, and A Moorside Suite might well have formed part of its repertoire had Tom Pilsbury’s idiomatic arrangement for symphonic brass then existed. Written as a test-piece for the National Brass Band Festival at Crystal Palace, its composer’s assurance in writing for brass (having been a trombonist early in his career) is always evident; whether in the ‘Scherzo’s animated interplay, the ‘Nocturne’s easeful pathos, or steadily cumulative excitement of the ‘March’ as provides a bravura finale.

Himself a one-time trumpeter and lifelong brass afficionado, whose work with the CBSO in the early 1970s includes a fine recording of his Fifth Symphony, Malcolm Arnold wrote his Symphony for Brass at a time of mounting personal crisis such as is reflected in its frequently acrid harmonies and disjunctive rhythms. Yet there is equally an uninhibited virtuosity which reflects its origins in a commission from the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble – as evident in the emotional extremes of the initial movement, or sardonic instrumental cameos of the ensuing intermezzo, as in those plangent outcries of the slow movement then a finale whose thematic shards coalesce through sheer will towards a close of gripping defiance. Michael Seal and his colleagues clearly thought this to be a neglected masterpiece, and it is not hard to hear why.

Rewards of a rather more equable nature were provided by A Downland Suite, John Ireland’s test-piece for a subsequent festival at Crystal Palace. A ‘Prelude’ duly sets the scene with its purposeful interplay of incisiveness and pathos, and though the hymnic poise of the ‘Elegy’ or lilting elegance of the ‘Minuet’ are better known in Ireland’s later arrangement for strings, the physicality of brass is its own justification here as in the rhythmic trenchancy of the final ‘Rondo’; the greater timbral range of symphonic brass again playing to this music’s strengths.

An arresting end, indeed, to a programme as turned current ‘social distancing’ requirements to its advantage by placing in the spotlight music that seldom gets its due in the concert hall. Hopefully further such concerts will be possible in this enterprising series ‘live at the Centre’.

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