CD cover - British Tuba ConcertosBritish Tuba Concertos

27-Apr-2006

James Gourlay
Accompanied by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Naxos Recordings:
Total Playing Time: 64.15 mins

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Since its inception in 1997, the Naxos catalogue has grown to encompass some 2,500 recordings, all at budget price.  Commencing with little known artists recording fairly standard repertoire, they now list many established performers, and have produced pioneer recordings of lesser known music.  Having produced a number of solo recordings, several featuring brass including a disc of solo works for alphorn! their latest issue showcases Scottish tuba virtuoso James Gourlay in four tuba concertos by British composers.

A familiar figure in the world of brass bands from his involvement with Brass Band Berner Oberland, Williams Fairey and more recently Brighouse and Rastrick, James Gourlay studied at the Royal College of Music.  After a spell with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra he was appointed to the BBC Symphony, and then moved to the Zurich Opera in Switzerland.  He was also a founder member of the Albany Brass Ensemble along with trumpeter Paul Archibald (later reformed as the English Brass Ensemble).  He has produced two previous solo recordings, "Gourlay plays Tuba" with Britannia Building Society Band, and "East meets West" with Grimethorpe. 

There have also been numerous appearances as guest soloist, and he has championed many new works for the instrument.  Currently Head of Brass & Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music, he has recently announced his resignation from his position with Brighouse and Rastrick in order to take up a position at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama.

Edward Gregson studied under Alan Bush, winning 5 prizes for composition whilst at the Royal Academy of Music.  One of these was for his brass quintet, which was taken up the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, Philip Jones himself having been present at its first performance.  Currently Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, he has maintained his links with brass bands, despite frustrations over the rejection of certain works for contesting purposes. 

He wrote his 'Concerto for Tuba and Band' in 1976 following a commission from Besses o'th' Barn Band, with funds from the Arts Council of Great Britain.  It is dedicated to John Fletcher, who gave the premiere of the orchestral version in 1983, conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, a wind band version having been produced as early as 1978. 

The concerto is in three movements, the first, in sonata form, including a reference to the Vaughan Williams concerto.  The orchestration makes good use of the range of orchestral colours available, and the accompaniment is overall a little more lightly scored than the band version.  There are two contrasting themes, one rhythmic and one exploiting the lyrical possibilities of the instrument,

The central Lento features a long, sustained tuba melody, phrased beautifully by the soloist, with backing from the strings.  There follows a more intense passage, with the woodwind answering the tuba phrases, before the slower music returns and the movement closes with the string chorale.

The bassoon opens the third movement, which is in the form of a Rondo, and in the words of the composer is "light and breezy in style".  There is effective use of vibraphone supporting the woodwind accompaniment, and a striking passage where the clarinet and vibraphone shadow the tuba melody.  The cadenza is finely judged, with the soloist taking his time and pacing the music well.

Roger Steptoe also studied under Alan Bush, albeit a decade later than Edward Gregson.   A teacher of harmony, composition, counterpoint and orchestration at the Royal Academy of Music, his concerto for tuba and strings is a reworking of three pieces originally for tuba and piano, prepared at the suggestion of James Gourlay, who premiered the completed work in 1986.  One of four concertos he has written so far - the others being for oboe, clarinet and cello - it has been taken up by a number of players, with performances in Australia, France and Switzerland as well as the United Kingdom.

Although using twelve-tone techniques, it has nothing of the "squeaky gate" school about it, with the composer placing emphasis on the intervals between the notes, in particular major seconds, minor thirds and perfect fourths.  It is a largely serious and reflective work, with little of the frolicking and high jinks to be found in the other three concertos on the disc, although it still calls for an agile soloist with good control over the full range of the instrument.  James Gourlay handles the occasionally angular lines with aplomb, as well as the wide leaps, especially in the cadenza linking the 2nd and 3rd movements.  The homogenous nature of the accompaniment serves to place the focus clearly on the soloist throughout, and this is a work well worth exploring, even if it takes a few hearings to reveal its treasures. 

The earliest of the works included is that by Ralph Vaughan Williams, written towards the end of his life at a time when he was exploring various unusual sonorities.  His music for the John Mills film "Scott of the Antarctic", much of which was transformed into his 7th Symphony, includes a wind machine to help create the bleakness of the landscape, whilst in the 8th Symphony tuned percussion are given particular prominence.  Having used a tenor saxophone in the 6th Symphony, No 9 includes a trio of saxophones, and a flugel horn. 

Another late work was his "Romance" for harmonica, strings and piano, written for Larry Adler, who delights in relating the story of how, when he confronted the composer regarding an awkward piece of writing, Ralph Vaughan Williams threatened to rescore the whole thing for tuba instead.  The tuba concerto, premiered in June 1954 by Philip Catelinet and the London Symphony Orchestra, has been described as "the eccentric idea of an aging composer".  In three movements, it is somewhat unusual in that there are cadenzas in both the first and last movements.

Listening to the concerto, it is hard to believe that is the work of an 82-year-old, with its sense of fun and joi de vivre.  Dedicated to the London Symphony Orchestra in the occasion of their jubilee, it follows the influence of Bach rather than the later Mozart or Beethoven, the cadenzas notwithstanding.  There are elements of the pastoral side of Vaughan Williams' writing, both in the modal harmonies and in the lilting 6/8 sections, with the occasional juxtaposition of 3's against 2's.  The first movement in entitled "Prelude", as if to confirm that it is the central "Romanza" that is both the musical and emotional heart of the work.  After the lively opening exchanges between soloist and orchestra, the cadenza serves to quieten things down as the tuba descends into his lower register.

The high-lying "Romanza" is often played on its own, and by euphonium players as well as on the tuba.  The whole concerto also exists in a version for cello, a rare example of string players adapting a work for brass instead of the other way round.  Following the introduction featuring clarinet and bassoon, the tuba enters with a sustained melody, complete with the occasional group of semi-quavers which is tucked in very neatly.  The music retains its intensity, even when the soloist is providing decoration around melodic lines in the orchestra.

The "Finale: Rondo alla tedesca", a type of German waltz, bears some similarities to the 6th Symphony (which some may remember as having been adapted as the theme music for the television series "Family at War").  Following the opening rapid figure and its fearsome trills there is a rustic feel to the music, with sonorities somewhat reminiscent of the composer's "The Pilgrim's Progress", with a bit of the much earlier "Job" thrown in for good measure.  The final cadenza leads swiftly into the closing bars and the work ends somewhat abruptly, but triumphantly.

Unlike the other three featured composers, John Golland only studied music part-time, whilst undertaking teacher training in Manchester.  Although his original instruments were piano and violin, he took up the euphonium whilst in his twenties, playing regularly in a brass band at that time.  His two euphonium concertos have been widely performed, together with various solos and duets, whilst "Sounds" was used as the test piece at the European Championships in 1993, shortly after his untimely death.  He was also responsible for arranging the music for three television series of "Dear Ladies" featuring Hinge and Bracket.
The premiere of his tuba concerto was given posthumously in July 1997 by Andrew Duncan and the Halle Orchestra.  Described by one reviewer as exhibiting "frothy happiness", it is in the customary three movements.  The main theme, introduced by the tuba, is based around the interval of a fourth, and is marked by answering figures on timpani and xylophone, which play a prominent role throughout.  There is much interplay between soloist and orchestra, and although there is not a cadenza as such, there is ample opportunity for James Gourlay to display his dexterity.

The "Adagio" calls for tremendous control with long, sustained phrases, with the soloist frequently accompanied by the vibraphone, and Philip Lane in his sleeve notes makes the comparison with the "Adagio" from Khachaturian's "Spartacus".  There is some very striking writing for the horns, with one soaring phrase at the climax being very cinematic in effect, before the movement dies down peacefully.

The finale, "Allegro giocoso", certainly includes an element of fun, due in part to the playful nature of the 7/8 metre of some sections.  The soloist is definitely kept busy, with passages of triple-tonguing and awkward intervals to negotiate, but it is all made to sound deceptively easy, moving fluently across the full range.  American tuba player Roger Bobo wrote in a recent online article on  www.tubanews.com about tuba fingering, commenting that it should be given at least as much importance as breathing, articulation and embouchure.  To judge by James Gourlay's performance it is a view with which he concurs, the faster passages seemingly causing no difficulties as the boisterous finale draws the recording to a close.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia (Orchestra of the Birmingham Royal Ballet), under their conductor Gavin Sutherland, provide sterling support throughout, with their wind players and percussion being particularly impressive.  The recording was made in January 2004 and is generally good, although the tuba sound does not have quite the same bloom as is found in some of his other recordings.  To hear it at its best, it may be necessary to set a slighter higher playback level than normal.  The only other real complaint concerns the lack of a sufficient interval between the works, with each seeming to start almost before the resonance from the previous one has died away.

As to the soloist, James Gourlay provides an hour's thoughtful music-making, with attention to detail and making light of the technical challenges of the music.  If he does not quite remove the memory of his teacher John Fletcher in the Gregson and Vaughan Williams, the performances are never less than first class although, at the risk of being thought heretical, there may be those who would prefer one of his brass band versions of the Vaughan Williams, either with Grimethorpe as mentioned above or with Leyland on "Alchymist's Journal". 

This recording is well worth a place in the collection of anyone who enjoys good brass playing, and with the widespread availability offered by Naxos it may well prove attractive to the curious music-lover browsing the shelves - they will not be disappointed.  The interview given by James Gourlay in the Gramophone magazine seems to hint at the possibility of further recordings, mentioning the Judith Bingham concerto, as well as works from the brass and wind band repertoire, so we shall have to wait and see!

Peter Bale

What's on this CD?

1-3 Edward Gregson, Tuba Concerto, 18.52
4-6. Roger Steptoe, Tuba Concerto, 14.49
7-9. Ralph Vaughn Williams, Tuba Concerto in F minor, 12.54
10-12. John Golland, Tuba Concerto Op. 46, 17.41

Total playing time: 64.15

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