The Symphonic Euphonium - British Bandsman Review
In the course of any year a wide spectrum of recordings land on the BB Editor’s desk - everything from the most enthusiastic youth or community groups to the leading performers in the world of brass bands. Now and again we’ll get some that find their way onto the office CD player and enjoy multiple hearings, typically from Black Dyke, Cory or Foden’s bands or outstanding soloists such as Richard Marshall, Steven Mead or Owen Farr. And then there are recordings by David Childs...
Four years on from his remarkable recording, Moto Perpetuo, which raised the bar to a new level in the fast-expanding world of the euphonium repertoire and performance, David Childs has been back in the studio again, this time with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) and conductor Bramwell Tovey. Under the title The Symphonic Euphonium we hear four of the most important works in the instrument’s repertoire, with two of them (by Horovitz and Wilby) in an unfamiliar environment, having stepped away from the original brass band accompaniment (the Hoddinott and Jenkins concertos were first performed with orchestra).
Appropriately, the opening work on this seminal recording is the Concerto for Euphonium by Joseph Horovitz, the first of its type, written in 1972 and first performed by the great Trevor Groom at the Royal Albert Hall Gala Concert following the National Brass Band Championship Final that year. A tour de force in its time, it is remarkable how simple the pre-eminent player of today makes the Horovitz Concerto sound, but perhaps most striking in this performance are the contrasting colours that emerge when the euphonium is juxtaposed with strings and woodwind rather than the brass accompaniment with which most BB readers may be familiar. There are times during the reflective middle movement when it would be easy to imagine listening to a great cellist, while the soloist later demonstrates how to bring the flippant finale to life through much more than perfect technique.
Philip Wilby’s four-movement Concerto for Euphonium and Orchestra was written for Robert Childs (David’s father) in 1995 while he was solo euphonium of Black Dyke and adapted for orchestral accompaniment five years later. We have heard some quite brilliant live performances of this piece over the years, but with a brass band backing there have been occasional issues over clarity and projection. In a studio recording these concerns are naturally dissipated, but the BBC NOW also accompanies most sympathetically under Maestro Tovey, adding significantly to the tone colour of the euphonium and creating an entity that is even greater than the sum of its parts. Wilby’s concerto is anything but straightforward in technical terms, but even on repeated hearings there isn’t a single sound from the soloist that isn’t perfectly produced or right in the centre of the note.
Alun Hoddinott’s The Sunne Rising - The King Will Ride, named after a line from poet and cleric John Donne (1572-1631), is the most challenging listen in this collection, but is arguably of most historical significance, having been performed in David Childs’ debut at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. In his extensive booklet notes, Paul Hindmarsh describes Alun Hoddinott as a ‘master of orchestral colour’ and, as such, the concerto fits like a glove in this collection. David Childs also considers it to be among the most difficult works in the repertoire, and complete mastery of technique and range is required to negotiate a safe passage from top to bottom, plus an extra touch of virtuosity that only the very best players possess. Again, however, the combination of soloist and orchestra travels well beyond mere technique in this performance - ‘brilliant’ in every sense of the word.
Having previously heard and enjoyed Karl Jenkins’ Concerto only with brass band accompaniment (by Cory Band no less, but again with occasional and brief ‘merging’ of band and soloist in the more richly textured passages in live performance), it was a great pleasure to witness this combination, new to my ear, in what has become one of the most popular and widely-performed works for euphonium of the modern age. In terms of this recording, it is probably best just to admit to having run out of superlatives by the time of its fourth concerto and say that if any readers have any ‘musical snobs’ in their circle of friends who don’t believe that players of mere brass band instruments can stand shoulder-to- shoulder with the greatest performers in the musical world, just let them hear this and enjoy the inevitable feeling of defeat as it descends upon them.
A central premise that emerges throughout this disc is one of contrasting colours which, linked with a sense of adventure in both performance and choice of repertoire, has resulted in a recording that richly deserves every accolade that will inevitably be bestowed upon it. In a recent conversation I had with Bramwell Tovey, he confirmed that the soloist was “a joy to work with throughout the entire recording, but one who also provided an eye-opening experience for the members of the orchestra, some of whom could scarcely believe that the euphonium could be played with such virtuosity.” There can be no greater compliment than to say that this ‘joy’ is present every second of the way for this listener. If Jacqueline du Pré or Yo-Yo Ma had chosen the euphonium, they would have probably tried to play it like David Childs!
Kenneth Crookston (Copyright British Bandsman 2014)