We’ve just finished recording a new disc for Naxos (our 7th). This latest one is the longest we’ve ever undertaken, and also probably technically the hardest. But the music holds a special place in our hearts because it brings us on to home turf. Our recordings so far have taken us to Germany and Austria, Russia, Italy, and France. But this one is decidedly British: Elgar, Parry, Finzi and Walton.
The process actually began about a year ago. We’d just finished recording Christmas with Septura, and so were looking to the next volume. Our series is broadly planned out (we can tell you roughly what we want to play on volume 25!), so we knew that we wanted to pay a visit to 20th-century England. But the particular composers and the specific pieces were agreed only in the autumn of 2016, after a summer of very English listening. Early on we decided that we’d stolen enough choral and keyboard works for the time being, and it was time to plough another particularly fertile furrow: music for strings. Elgar’s beloved Serenade, Finzi’s Prelude and Romance, and Walton’s Sonata all fitted the bill, and most importantly we could immediately hear them as pieces for brass. Ultimately though we couldn’t resist including some masterpieces from the rich English choral tradition: Finzi’s rousing anthem “God is gone up” is such a natural fit for brass (“The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies”); and the first four of Parry’s Songs of Farewell have long been an ambition for the group.
Repertoire set, there was the small issue of divvying it up and actually arranging it, as well as getting permission for the works in copyright. I bagsied the Elgar and Parry, which was lucky because Simon was keen to do the Walton – he had first heard it 10 years beforehand at La Mortella, the composer’s home in the Bay of Naples. With a deadline of mid-May, we set to work. After comparing notes, incorporating a few suggestions, and pinching some ideas from our Royal Academy students, the scores were ready just a week before the first read-through in June.
The first read-through is always a slightly dispiriting experience. Having spent months immersed in this music, imagining every detail of its glorious reincarnation for brass, it’s slightly worrying when – despite the unparalleled sight-reading of Septura’s members – it doesn’t quite sound as you’d expected. Simon’s Walton in particular is very hard – totally un-sight-readable. “Will it be ok? Have we bitten off more than we can chew this time?”, I ask nervously. “Relax, it’ll be fine – it’s always like this the first day”, Simon reassures me. Sure enough, when we meet again a couple of weeks later, after a bit of frantic private practice (not least for me), everything comes together. We hone our new versions over the next few weeks – aided by performing the Elgar at the Gregynog Festival in Wales – and then we’re ready for the red light of the recording studio.
The recording itself is always very intense – we do two three-hour sessions a day, three days in a row. Normally we aim to get 20 minutes of music a day (and just about manage) but because of the length of this disc we needed 23. We felt better prepared than ever before though, and, in the familiar surroundings of St Paul’s New Southgate, we sailed through the Elgar on the first day, with our Producers Phil Rowlands and Jim Unwin expertly guiding us through the musical rigours of recording. Day 2 was the big one: the Walton. And for the first time in our recording history disaster struck. Its form: an oil leak, leaving Alan stranded at the side of the M40 as the session was due to start. A two-and-a-half hour delay put us on the back foot, but the group rallied and we ended the day weary at 11.15 pm, but relieved to have the Walton in the can. The final day is always a bit of a challenge – tired faces plus time pressure make for an intense race to the finish. This time the Finzi and Parry were actually fairly straightforward, and we made it to our favoured watering hole, The Charles Lamb, in plenty of time for last orders.
Now Phil and Jim have the unenviable task of piecing the takes together. Meanwhile Simon and I are planning disc number 8 – so watch this space!