John McCabe died earlier this month. He was a polymath – teacher, pianist and composer, and one of those rare musicians about whom it’s hard to find a cross word. He’s represented on this compilation of modern trumpet concertos by La Primevera, a concise three-movement work written in 2012. Spring’s “exuberance and vitality” are reflected in music of infectious energy and spikiness, and the outer movements’ bright, transparent scoring allow the solo line to soar. It was composed for the brilliant Simon Desbruslais, who switches to a flugelhorn for the central Andante. McCabe, like Hindemith, knew how to write idiomatically for every instrument, and the trumpet writing, however fiendish, is always highly idiomatic. Even trickier to perform are two concertante works by Robert Saxton. Psalm: A Song of Ascent takes its inspiration from Biblical references to the trumpet. Desbruslais is, in Saxton’s words, “a Priest-like Master of Ceremonies”, leading an orchestral congregation through a sermon taking in lament, rejoicing and all points in between. More immediately engaging is Saxton’s 2013 Shakespeare Scenes; five brief, intense movements. We hear Falstaff waking from deep sleep, and a terrifically vivid portrayal of Lear and his Fool. Saxton’s less abrasive style glances backwards without descending into pastiche.
Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace is scored for piccolo trumpet and small orchestra. The work is described as a musical response to the sky’s changing colours, though it’s never prosaic or ploddingly literal. The pleasures come in listening to Pritchard’s cannily shaded, continually shifting orchestral textures, providing luminous backing to the stratospheric solo writing. A fascinating, enjoyable CD. Kenneth Woods and David Curtis share conducting duties, and the Orchestra of the Swan provide confident, lively backing.
Four vibrant, attractive concertos – three written within the past three years – by three of Britain’s brightest and best, and performed with dazzling virtuosity and musicianship by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan.
Desbruslais’s tone is extraordinarily rich, as can be heard by the verve with which he plays his instruments – the piccolo trumpet in the seven-movement concertino Skyspace (2012) by one of the composers-of-the-moment, Deborah Pritchard (b1977), the flugelhorn in the Andante of McCabe’s La primavera (2012) – and the various mutes and tonguings each composer requires. Pritchard, whose violin concerto Wall of Water was premiered in London last October, has ‘a synaesthetic approach to composition’, vividly illustrated in Skyspace’s movement titles as they flit by, such as ‘Aurum Resonance’, ‘Light Iridescent’, ‘Opaque’ and the concluding ‘Cerulean’.
Robert Saxton’s Psalm: A Song of Ascents (1992) is effectively his first trumpet concerto, a single-span ‘musical voyage’ with resonances of his Jewish heritage. His second is the splendid Shakespeare Scenes (2013), which switches back through some of the most memorable of the Bard’s inventions: Puck’s putting a girdle round the world – evoked also in Henze’s Eighth Symphony – as well as Falstaff, Lear’s heath and Prospero’s magic island. Best of all, though, is McCabe’s La primavera, a paean to spring’s ‘exuberance and vitality of burgeoning new growth’ which takes in a homage to Miles Davis and, in the finale, ‘Quick’, a veiled tableau vivant of the London Olympics. The concluding held note for the trumpet unaccompanied is just one sign of his consummate mastery. A hugely enjoyable disc, strongly recommended.
Simon Debruslais is clearly the master-mind behind this inventive programme of contemporary British trumpet concertos.
When at the University of Oxford Desbruslais came to know the music of Oxford professor Robert Saxton. Saxton composed a piece for trumpet and small orchestra Psalm : A Song of Ascents, a work that Desbruslais performed with the Oxford Sinfonietta in 2008. At that time he approached Saxton with the proposal that he should write another trumpet concerto. The result materialised some time later when Saxton completed his Shakespeare Scenes for trumpet and strings. It’s no wonder, then, that Saxton’s concertos are given the lion’s share in this release.
Both pieces deserve to be better known and when listening to Desbruslais’ immaculate performances of these two works one cannot but wonder – again – why music of such quality is so little heard. They are strongly contrasted in mood and intent. As might be implied Psalm draws on the composer’s Jewish background although without any real or all-too-obvious borrowings from Jewish music — at least as far as I can tell. It is rather a matter of atmosphere as suggested by the different episodes that make up the piece. “The title is used for my piece to illustrate a spiritual journey through various states, the trumpet as a priest-like master of Ceremonies, initiating the musical voyage accompanied by tubular bells, its role that of both announcement and warning”. These words by the composer put things straight as to what happens in the course of the piece. Knowing that Shakespeare Scenes was to be first performed in Stratford the composer thought of Shakespeare and thus developed the idea of writing a work about some of the plays. This was without any real programmatic intent so that each of the five movements references episodes in the plays without being truly descriptive. Again it is more of a suggestion of atmosphere and mood. So The Magic Wood alludes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream whereas the second movement Falstaff is more like a character sketch of that formidable Shakespeare character. The Storm on the Heath is a “depiction of the physical and psychological states of King Lear and his Fool in the driving rain and storm, the trumpet representing the mad monarch, the solo violin his increasingly deranged jester”. The following movement Masque does not refer to any particular play but rather to the masque sequences to be found in some of the plays. The last movement, as if counterbalancing the opening one, is entitled The Magic Island and like Alwyn’s similarly titled tone-poem derives from The Tempest.
La Primavera composed as recently as 2012 is not John McCabe’s first piece for trumpet and orchestra. It was preceded by Rainforest II for trumpet and strings completed in 1987 (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7290). La Primavera is again a splendid work displaying a remarkable vitality and imagination. I have still to hear an indifferent note of music from this composer. The piece unfolds in three concise movements played without a break. Two notable features have to be singled out. First, in the second movement the trumpet is replaced by a flügelhorn — as in Vaughan Williams’ Ninth Symphony but also as played by Miles Davis, another musician whom McCabe much admires. Second, the percussion plays an almost obbligato part and it is even suggested that these instruments be placed at the front of the platform next to, or near, the trumpet soloist. By the way, this superb work is in no way connected to Botticelli’s celebrated canvas but rather reflects the “exuberance and vitality of burgeoning new growth”.
Up to now Deborah Pritchard’s music was known to me through a short piece Chanctonbury Ring (2000) featured in a quite fine and interesting NMC release The Hoxton Thirteen (NMC D076) that I reviewed some time ago. I was thus happy to renew acquaintance with her work and to hear a recent piece of hers. Unlike the other works recorded here, Skyspace is for piccolo trumpet and strings. In her notes the composer states that she has a synaesthetic approach to composition with much music written in response to visual artworks or, I suppose, to visual stimuli. She goes on to say that “the perceived sky colour has provided the stimulus for the work, it was not her intention to portray physical colour, rather the imagined colour of the mind’s eye”. The seven short movements which the composer describes as miniatures — each of them is quite short, the longest one playing for a little over two minutes — again suggest moods in a concise and remarkably telling way. This, again, is a very fine work and I would certainly like to hear more of her music shortly.
Desbruslais’s immaculate playing and faultless musicality serve all these works well. I do not think that his playing in these works could be bettered although I sincerely wish that these works were avidly seized upon by any adventurous trumpet player. The Orchestra of the Swan’s committed support – and that of the two conductors – is also part of the success of this release. Excellent recordings and illuminating notes by the composers are definitely an added asset to this most desirable release.
Four new British trumpet concertos, brilliant, seductive and engrossing
The trumpet as a concertante instrument rather missed out on the 19th century, there are baroque and classical concerto and modern concertos but none in the middle (there are no concertos between Hummel’s 1803 concerto and early 20th century French concertos). This lack of repertoire is something which trumpeter Simon Desbruslais is working towards remedying, and on this new disc on Signum Classics he performs concertos by Deborah Pritchard, Robert Saxton, and John McCabe with the Orchestra of the Swan and conductors Kenneth Woods and David Curtis, with three of the concertos being new commissions.
Desbuslais played Robert Saxton’s 1992 concerts, Psalm: A Song of Ascents in 2008 and asked Robert Saxton to write another concerto which became the 2013 concerto Shakespeare’s Scenes. And this led to the commission to Deborah Prichard, who was one of Saxton’s pupils and a commission to John McCabe. The result is a remarkable group of concertos for the instrument (or rather instruments, not all use the standard trumpet).
Deborah Pritchard (born 1977) wrote Skyspace for the piccolo trumpet, at Desbruslais’ request; thus making it the first modern concerto for that instrument. Pritchard’s concerto draws on her synaestheric approach to composition and along with her experience of visiting one of James Turrell’s skyspaces. The concerto is in seven short movements, each of which Pritchard intends to depict the varying sky colours seen whilst watching the sky through a skyspace. The seven movements are Aurum, Aurum Resonance, Light Iridescent, Opaque, Opaque Resonance, Dark Iridescent and Cerulian. The music starts from a dramatic rhetorical statement and has a rather filmic quality, and Pritchard develops her material into more complex layers, bleak at times, before the quiet resolution at the muted and rather low key end. Interestingly, this concerto like the others on the disc seems to skip over the structure of the 19th century concerto and return to a more baroque view with the soloist as primus inter pares rather than a dramatic or romantic confrontation. Whilst the music did not immediately invoke for me the experience of viewing one of Turrell’s skyspaces, I enjoyed the concerto immensely with its interesting layers of interaction between soloist and orchestra.
Robert Saxton (born 1953) wrote Psalm: A Song of Ascents in 1992 for John Wallace and the London Sinfonietta for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary. The work references the psalms of the bible, with the solo trumpet leading the orchestra on what Saxton refers to as a spiritual journey in what is a single movement 15 minute work. Saxton’s writing is a wonderfully complex interweaving of trumpet and orchestral lines. The writing is not tonal, but is highly lyrically expressive. There are lots of notes and the trumpet part gets rather bravura. Desbruslais and orchestra bring a lovely sense of rapture to the work, whilst making light of the difficulties of actually performing the piece; no mean feat indeed.
La Primavera by John McCabe (born 1939) was inspired by ideas of spring, both the burgeoning of new growth and flowering. It is in three movements, Allegro, Andante and Quick, with the soloist using a flugelhorn for the slower middle movement. The perky Allegro features quite a lot of slithering chromatics in the melodic material, and a very prominent percussion part. There is is lots of rhythmic interest, and hints of Tippett in the wind writing. The Andante is a complex yet lyrically expressive movement, the solo flugelhorn is to the fore with discreet orchestral support and disturbances from the percussion. I also kept hearing echoes of Tippett in the strings. The finale is busy, full of ryhthmic interest and incisive, involving playing.
Robert Saxton’s Shakespeare’s Scenes reflects another aspect of Saxton’s personal heritage (his background mixes Jewish experience with English Anglicanism). The work is in five movements, each a separate character scene. Saxton unifies them by using the same pitch centres in each movement (based on the musical letters in Shakespeare’s name). The Magic Wood refers to A Midsummer Nights Dream and seems a prelude to something with hushed strings and muted trumpet, yet full of incident. Falstaff has a thoughtful trumpet part supported by richly divided strings. The Storm on the Heath refers of course to King Lear, and it is a subtle storm with the virtuoso trumpet part being exciting but not too loud. Masque evokes a more general tradition of Jacobean masque. A call to attention is followed by a long sung trumpet part and fascinating string parts (more Tippett here), with a flourish at the end. The Magic Island is of course Prospero’s island, a quietly intense movement bringing the concerto to the end.
These are four varied and rather finely written concertos, full of incident they each explore different aspects of the trumpet as a solo instrument. I was particularly taken with Robert Saxton’s complex yet seductive music, but all have an aspect which appeals. Commissioning new music, the commissioner can feel lucky if an occasional work is a winner but here Desbruslais seems to have a whole group.
The music is difficult to play, Saxton’s music in particular makes heavy demands on the orchestral players and the Orchestra of the Swan comes up trumps and matches Desbuslais for virtuosity, whilst giving discreet support when necessary. Throughout conductors David Curtis and Kenneth Wood guide everything with skill and poise.
Simon Desbruslais has his eye on further new works to expand the trumpet repertoire, but in the meantime do try this disc.