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.

#Classical365: 13 – Shostakovich Symphony No.10

I knew today had to be Shostakovich. I’m surprised the Russian composer had popped up sooner. But still, not having planned the night before what to listen to today I still experienced a mild panic as I tried to work out what it was I should select. The rules continue to develop: today’s seems to be that it has to be a different composer each day and that ideally it needs to be a different musical form and certainly a different instrument. Variety and contrast seems to be the key here, if you’ll forgive the pun.*

So if I pick Shostakovich this morning, I think as I try in vain to untangle my earphones and pedal slowly on the cross-trainer, I can happily attend my first live concert tomorrow night knowing that the programme will itself – Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky – be a harmonic contrast even if it’s not a geographical one.

Spotify’s algorithms seem a bit unhelpful when I search for ‘Shostakovich’ and ‘symphony’. All I get seems to be Shostakovich 10. In my head, that’s the really long symphony – the really impenetrable one. I like Shostakovich, but I don’t like him that much. Not at 6.45am. In the gym. I consider Shostakovich 5 and think that’s too familiar (too familiar means the recording has to be really top notch so I don’t get to the end of the performance and feel disappointed).

Stefan the gym instructor waves a silent hello in my direction. I look at the timer and realise I’ve already spent 5 minutes on what at best could be described as gentle exercise and not broken a sweat. Make it Shostakovich 10. Dive in. This selection process is taking way too long.

It begins with at sounds like the longest left to right pan I’ve ever imagined. There is a line which remains suspended, keep our attention for what seems like an eternity. Something has happened and it’s quite bad, or something really quite awful is about to. I can’t work out which.

That’s the thing about Shostakovich for me, his musical language paints a cinematic picture which I reckon is probably far more compelling than any director could actually conjur up himself. I adore the broody opening, the threat of something horrific and the militaristic, largely because I know the consequence of that militarism isn’t far away. Listen to the bleak and unforgiving slow section at the beginning of the fourth movement.

The second movement took me by surprise. It is Shostakovich at his best. Tightly coiled and venomous. In this breathlessly efficient movement the strings thunder and the wind whistle with fury. The brass and percussion punctuate proceedings driving the relentless but tightly choreographed drama onwards to its eventual end. This to me is good anger: the musical equivalent of the outward expression and emotion most us fail to deploy successfully or healthily.

In the recording I listened to, conductor Vasily Petrenko pushes the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to the very limit of Shostakovich’s writing. To go any faster would over-egg things. We stand on the perilous edge of oblivion and it’s brilliant.

* Musical pun, obviously.

I was listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko Spotify

If you’ve got a suggestion for a work for me to listen to, leave a comment below or tweet me@thoroughlygood

BBC Proms 2010: Prom 8 Shostakovich 7 Thierry Fischer BBC NOW

Shostakovich’s 7th symphony – the Leningrad – is a crowd pleaser, in part because of the colossal orchestration demanded by the composer but also because of it’s considerable 75 minutes of music. It’s a marathon listen. And an exhausting play.

Tonights Prom given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales wasn’t the only playing the band had done today. A long rehearsal during the afternoon followed a bus journey which shipped the players from Cardiff to London. What you see on stage or on TV often isn’t the complete picture. Musicians have to work hard for their money.

The thought of six hours playing plus a few hours travel made the sight of the smiling orchestra all the more incredible to comprehend at the end of the Shostakovich. Audiences don’t just expect to be transported by the music, they want to feel as though the musicians have come with them on the journey too.

That said, there were moments when it felt like things sagged a bit.

Did the opening theme lose something of its grandeur because of the slightly slower speed conductor Thierry Fischer took it? The breathtaking piananissimo in the snare drum and pizzicato strings at the beginning of the battle sequence may have been impressive, but was the grotesque violence in the double-stopped strings lost?

I’m quibbling, I suspect. I know the work well having listened to the same recording for fifteen years, a lot of those times via headphones. Sometimes one needs to go into the concert hall with a clear head, devoid of expectations.

The performance saw some deeply impressive playing from a BBC band. In its favour, the slower pace in the first movement allowed more time for the complex rhythmic patterns to be revealed, including a stunning sequence of triple tonguing in the principal flute line. The string section consistently delivered a rich tone throughout the work, so too the wind whose ensemble playing made Shostakovich’s unmistakable sonorities too delicious to overlook. Horns and brass alike blossomed in the last movement.

It may not have been the most spectacular performance of the Leningrad, but it was a spectacle and something to be proud of. It was also a performance which demands closer scrutiny. I’m rather looking forward to the prospect.

And to get all that (and some Britten plus a hugely entertaining performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto) for £24 in the stalls? That’s got to be worth giving Proms Director Roger Wright a hug for.

Proms 2009: Prom 63 – Xenakis Rachmaninov BBC Symphony Orchestra

View from the Choir

Prom 63 featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson was my first return to the Royal Albert Hall for what felt like a long time. The truth I had visited during the second half of last Friday’s Prom but this could easily be dismissed on account of me slightly (or possibly quite) drunk.

Returning felt a little odd, almost as though I’d given the season a second go after a painful but necessary trial separation. By the end of the concert however, it felt as though me and the season had ironed out our problems and I was ready to embrace the last few concerts before the Last Night.

The concert opened in a reassuringly challenging way with Xenakis’ Nomos Gamma. Prommers looked on with interest while 98 players from the BBC Symph dispersed around the arena led the way through the 15 minute work.

It was always going to be a strange concoction of sound – all manner of different techniques being used by the players to meet Xenakis’ exacting requirements. But aside from the unexpectedly engaging cacophany created by the split percussion section on the stage and around the edges of the arena, Nomos Gamma seemed little more than it sounded on first listen: a noise.

The second work by Xennakis – Ais for amplified singer and percussion at the beginning second half was a complete contrast. Special mention goes to baritone Leigh Melrose who carried off the unprecedented challenges presented in the vocal line and brilliant New Generation Artist Colin Currie reminding us of his obvious talent. Moments of arresting orchestration demand a second listen to this work.

Whilst it’s always a pleasure to hear anything by Shostakovich (the relative brevity of his ninth symphony was a deliberate act on the composer’s part cocking a snook at the Soviet authorities in 1945), it was the Rachmaninov The Isle of the Dead which really resonated.

On a day when the sad news of a colleague’s untimely death registered nothing but confusion, there was something strangely uplifting about the dark world Rachmaninov painted. The BBC Symphony’s poignant performance proved that for every overly sentimental composition Rachmaninov has penned there is an undiscovered gems waiting to act as the perfect epitaph.

In memory of Penny.

Prom 72: Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Haitink / Shostakovich 4

Prom 72, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

“It’s one of the highlights of the season,” said one Prommer in the Lanson Arena Bar shortly before the concert. At least, I think that’s what she said. The quote may not be word for word, but you get the picture I’m sure.

“Bernard Haitink, Murray Perrahia, Mozart twenty-four and Shostakovich four,” she continued.

Amid the predictable cries of elitism on my part, I have to confess that I love the shorthand way of referring to concert works. I’ve always loved the shorthand. Why bother wasting precious time saying the word “symphony” or “concerto” when those you’re talking to know exactly what you’re referring to by virtue of having read the programme before the conversation began.

Pretensions aside (and I’m full of them) and the first half underway, I was relieved to hear that my previous concerns about any prevalence of misjudged applause during my favourite piano concerto on my self-nominated official birthday had been allayed.

Bernard Haitink, on the other hand, did have some concerns about extended coughing in between movements and a door slamming in between movements from the side the choir seats. This seemed obvious by the way he held his conductor’s baton and refused to continue until a suitably sombre silence had again descended over the auditorium.

I don’t think I would have seen all of this had me and significant other Simon not been occupying seats one and two in the Grand Tier box number three, overlooking the stage. These were purchased seats I might add.

Lots of people reckon they know where the best place is to listen to concerts in the Royal Albert Hall and to a certain extent I find it difficult not to agree that promming in the first three rows of the arena offers the best for sound, especially in loud works.

But nothing prepared me for the seats in the Grand Tier. During Shostakovich’s predictably highly orchestrated and cinematic lesser-known symphony, we got to see a 100 strong band working in teams. Shostakovich’s string writing would drag my eyes to the violins and then my ears would distract me over the percussion section whenever an unexpected crash or snare drum roll was inserted.

This was the work which Shostakovich “withdrew” from performance after the “writers” at Pravda denounced his opera Lady Macbeth as “muddle rather than music”. It was his fifth symphony which was penned as a result and, although powerful, engaging and ultimately as satisfying to listen to as the fifth is to play, I’m a shameless convert to his fourth symphony based solely on one listen.

That’s powerful for me, considering I knew nothing of the fourth symphony before Prom 72 and engaged with the work as a result of getting a fresh visual perspective on orchestral playing. Hurrah for seats in the Grand Tier. Now all I have to do is find enough disposable income to afford a seat there every single night.

Listen to the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 via the BBC iPlayer
Listen to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 via the BBC iPlayer