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The Golden Oldies III:
4BarsRest takes a look at what could arguably be the most important of all brass band recordings

Grimethorpe Special
Grimethorpe Colliery Band with Besses O’ th’ Barn Conductor: Elgar Howarth
Headline Recordings for Decca – June 1976.

Our recent series of Golden Oldies has provoked a considerable response from you – people it seems would love to see the LP return. However, more than any other record, this release from Decca with Grimethorpe performing (with some help from Besses it must be said) Elgar Howarth’s “Fireworks”, Takemitsu’s “Garden Rain”, Birtwistle’s “Grimethorpe Aria” and Henze’s “Ragtimes and Habaneras” has been the one that most people believe is essential listening material and one of the most important brass band recordings ever made. It is possibly the greatest “What if?” brass band record.

1976 was the year after “Fireworks” had been unleashed on the unsuspecting banding fraternity at the British Open where Wingates under the baton of Richard Evans took the title playing off number 23 (the last but one band on). Grimethorpe incidentally did not take part as Elgar Howarth was in the box with William Relton and Roy Newsome, but such was the furore that many conductors thought it “undesirable” and the following years saw the Open revert to “Epic Symphony”, “Diadem of Gold” and “Benvenuto Cellini”.

Around the mid 1970’s Elgar Howarth was perhaps at his most radical in the way in which he brought to the brass band a new and almost revolutionary change in musical perspective. The conservative elements that even today hold back the movement were even stronger then and pieces such as “Grimethorpe Aria” were considered so way out that they had no place in the movements development. It was perhaps the movement’s greatest mistake. For all the success and innovation he brought to contests such as “Granada Band of the Year” Howarth has been poorly treated by those who still believe that banding should still remain an isolated form of traditional music making. This record is a salutary remainder of the possibilities Howarth opened up to us.

“Fireworks” complete with narrator Lady Valarie Solti (in best BBC “Listen with Mother” voice) remains a delight of musical wit and invention. The idea may be borrowed but writing is still fresh and insightful and at times wickedly pointed as it highlights both the brass bands potential and its limitations. It is easy to see why so many brass dinosaurs saw it as such as threat to the cosy limits they were used to as it reveals touches of those composers who Howarth admired (and they possibly never heard of) most and there are elements of Birtwistle, Henze and even Vinter throughout.

Even by todays technical standards the playing is of a good quality, although the combination of two bands for the end fugue is something of nothing as an experiment. It is however a great work and one that even today is sadly and unnecessarily neglected. The Open of 1975 must have been an amazing contest of musical discovery and possibility - 2001 sees bands playing “Les Preludes”. Progress eh?

The rest of the LP sees Grimethorpe and Howarth take the plunge into repertoire that for the musical knowledgable seems as mild as a Chicken Korma curry but for the brass band fraternity must have been like eating a Vindaloo with no water.

“Garden Rain” by the Japanese composer Takemitsu was originally written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble in 1974 but Howarth was allowed to re-score it for full band. It is a reflective piece, both elegant and poetic (and very slow) which explores the softness of texture and colour that up until then had not been fully explored by brass band composers. Today it sounds even a little dated in style but remains a piece that illustrates the possibilities of brass scoring.

“Grimethorpe Aria” (1973) however is a totally different kettle of fish and remains one of the most important brass compositions of the post war period. Howarth is of course a champion of Birtwistle’s music and one of the leading orchestral conductor of his works and the listener is rewarded with a performance that should have led to Birtwistle becoming as well known a brass band composer as say Robert Simpson, who’s works started to appear at around the same time.

It is an uncompromising work, bleak in mood, mostly slow in tempo, anguished, pessimistic but always interesting. As Howarth himself remarks in his superb sleeve notes, “it has not yet endeared itself to band audiences reared on more ear tickling fare” (How true – even 25 years later). He believed it would become a masterpiece of the repertoire, and he has been proven right.

The last work is the eclectic and almost exotically eccentric “Ragtimes and Habaneras” by Hans Werner Henze, which has fortunately remained a popular and accessible work, even though it estranges the traditional approach to brass scoring and instrumental style. Henze knew litlle of the brass band (except for a list of the instruments and two recordings given to him) and so gave the banding world a brilliant entertainment of 11 miniature pieces of glittering brilliance based around a “Cuban” style of dance rhythms and musical references to Kurt Weil, Romberg and even Mahler. Even today it is a fresh as the proverbial daisy.

So “What if?” then? Well it seems that 1976 was perhaps the highpoint of brass band experimentation, and just like in the Frankenstein story, the ignorant villagers came up and destroyed what was meant to be a thoughtful and intelligent creation. The pieces were rubbished and thought of as too avant garde and musically destructive to our conservative ideals. Thankfully we haven’t completely lost Howarth, but we certainly lost Birtwistle and a whole phalanx of new composers that could have enriched the banding world with copositions that would have explored new areas. What about a test piece by MacMillan, or Cage or even Harle?

As Howarth points out, these composers have tackled the problem (of brass band repertoire) “…. enlivening and revitalising a repertoire which had become inbred and stale”. Just remember he wrote this in 1976 – even today his words are almost prophetic.

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