Septura Brass Ensemble: Elgar / Walton / Shostakovich

There was much whooping for the Septura Brass last night.

The ensemble – Huw Morgan, Alan Thomas, and Simon Cox (trumpet), Matthew Gee, Matthew Knight, and Daniel West (trombones), and Sasha Koushk-Jalali (tuba) – includes principal players from the London Symphony, Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, Basel and Aurora Orchestras.

They’re also Ensemble in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music. With a considerable audience of appreciative students, no surprises the atmosphere was buoyant and enthusiastic throughout.

Septura have arranged ‘stolen’ string repertoire for their Kleptomania concert, and opened last night’s concert with Elgar’s string serenade.  A pleasant opener that highlighted the limitations of the work.

Where the first movement of the Elgar Serenade had a rocky start, with the balance of instruments sometimes needing attention, the second movement was beautiful. Septura’s warm tone and deft ensemble did Elgar’s writing justice, although the dynamic range seemed understated in places. The third movement lacked the necessary lilt.

Walton’s A minor quartet is where Septura really shone. This was an ambitious arrangement by artistic director Simon Cox, giving the players far more material to get to grips with. Walton’s composition style – in particular his fugues – demand tight ensemble playing. Septura played with sparkle and panache throughout. The cackles in the bass trombone and tuba, echoed by flashlight stabs scored for trumpets in the first movement were a real highlight.

Magic occurred at the end of the first movement too: one high note from the outstanding Huw Morgan on trumpet, supported by two equally challenging sustained notes in the trumpets . Crystal clear and unfussy playing. Just what you’d expect from principal brass players.

That gripping sense of drama continued in the demanding and inventive arrangement of the second movement presto, manifest in fiendish articulation deployed at break-neck speed.

The third movement was less successful, highlighting how Walton’s languid intimacy is better suited to strings than brass. Walton is much more satisfying when he makes all manner of demands on the player, and the last movement of the A minor quartet exploits that. Septura played with verve: a deft attack on a relentless and demanding opponent.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet (above captured during the recording for Naxos) is undoubtedly Septura’s calling card, the brass sound giving the opening andante gravitas and doom I’ve not heard in the string quartet before now. Menace surges around with a twisted glint in its eye during the allegro molto that follows.

Real spectacle in Septura’s performance was found in the third movement allegretto, where each instrumentalist deployed a complex sequence of mutes, increasing the number of voices we hear beyond the six players we see on stage.

When the opening theme returns in the final movement largo this time on trombone, the DSCH motif has a painfully mournful quality to it. A potent conclusion to a work originally dedicated by the composer to those who have suffered at the hands of fascism.

Septura Brass introduce their programme with customary brass player nonchalance, describing their arrangements as ‘ambitious thefts’.

Such self-deprecation makes the sound they create all the more incredible. When they play, we hear fireworks. But, we have no visible sign of what’s they’re actually doing to produce that sound. Their arrangements are respectful compromises that highlight their own considerable technical dexterity as brass players, and pay homage to compositional greats.

Septura repeat this programme at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on Thursday 5 October.

Their latest recording is released in November 2017.

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