MusicWeb International: ‘Septura’s most successful to date’

Roger Blackburn
MusicWeb International, January 2016

Music for Brass Septet Volume 3

The previous two volumes of this series were devoted to (1) nineteenth-century choral and organ music (8.573314) and (2) baroque suites by Handel, Purcell, Rameau and Blow (8.573386). According to Septura trumpeter Simon Cox: “The composers who created the septet as the brass section of the nineteenth-century orchestra provided the logical starting point. The lyrical quality of brass instruments is rivalled perhaps only by singers, but put together they can produce a warm organ-like blend. And so we decided to begin our series with nineteenth-century choral and organ music.”

That disc certainly realised those ambitions but, whatever the success of those first two sets of transcriptions, my feeling in advance was that the Russian music of this disc might be an even better source for transcription to brass and nothing I have heard has persuaded me otherwise.

It was a bold choice but it turns out that the querulous anxieties of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet translate well to the medium, especially in the dynamic playing in the second movement. Creating a strong Slavic feel, the contrast between the individual voices more than compensates for the loss of the more naturally fretful string sonorities. The liner-notes contain an interesting discussion of the motivation behind the quartet, noting the composer’s apparent intention to commit suicide at the time.

Prokofiev’s early foray into Neo-classicism, his Op. 12 piano pieces, sounds totally natural in the brass setting; the four selected pieces make a well balanced suite. The marking ‘humoristique’ of the third movement Scherzo is especially well realised by the trombones and tuba. The same epithet is really applicable to all the movements (note the glissandi in the Allemande)! A skilful arrangement (based on Prokofiev’s version for piano) of the March from ‘The Love for Three Oranges’ makes an engaging pendant to the suite.

Scriabin’s output is biased to the extremes of instrumentation – piano (even one hand only) to large orchestras with almost nothing in between. This is where Septura’s idea of creating musical ‘counter-factuals’ – works which might have been composed but were not – finds its ideal subject, in spite of the apparent implausibility of translating Scriabin’s highly pianistic works into brass chamber music. As with the Prokofiev, the arrangements of six of his preludes really do feel like new pieces.

The solo part of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise has been adapted for many instruments, usually with strong contrast with the accompaniment – violin, cello or clarinet, say, against piano – the version for theremin and piano is particularly ear-catching. Here, yet another expert arrangement from Simon Cox creates an authentic chamber setting with a lovely dreamy atmosphere. The four excerpts from Rachmaninov’s Op. 11 piano duet set really suit the translation to brass with Slavic sonorities very much to the fore; one would hardly know that the joyful ‘Slava’ had not been written for brass septet.

I would say that this set of transcriptions is Septura’s most successful to date, a tribute to the skills of the players and the arranger.

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