Review by Robert Matthew-Walker
Ever since Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto of 1954, which revealed to many music-lovers for the first time the expressive qualities of the lowest of brass instruments (the slow movement of that work is one of the composer’s finest late inspirations, existing also in a version for cello and orchestra), we have waited for some time for follow-up works, and whilst the Euphonium is not the same as the Tuba, being pitched somewhat higher, it simply does not deserve the comparative neglect as a solo instrument, into which – as with its slightly bigger brother – it appears to have fallen.
This may be a result of several factors: a Salvation Army association, perhaps, the reputation of being an ‘outdoor’ instrument, or simply forming the bass fundamentals in brass band pieces and instrumentation, with the consequential connotations of less than wholly serious repertoire. No matter how this reputation has arisen, it is unjustified, as this excellent release comprehensively demonstrates, for it would be exceptionally difficult to find a finer player of the instrument than David Childs, whose artistry has inspired at least two of the composers of these four concertos.
I was appraised of Childs’s musicianship by Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008), who told me he had heard Childs and wanted to write something for him: when he received the commission, he accepted it with alacrity, and the result is one of this greatly misunderstood composer’s finest late works. Hoddinott’s last years saw the composition of a series of outstanding scores – the Second Violin Concerto (Mistral), the Tenth Symphony, Dragon Fire (a concerto for percussion and orchestra) and this final Euphonium Concerto, which deeply impressed me (and others) at the BBC Proms in 2004, part of a mixed bag of a programme such as ought never to have been proffered as a serious concert. Nonetheless, the performance then was simply magnificent, drawing the composer’s enthusiastic endorsement.
The disc opens with Joseph Horovitz’s masterly Concerto of 1972, a wonderful three-movement work of great appeal both for the listener and (one suspects) for the player: the slow movement – as in Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto – contains the heart of the work, and the composer is honoured throughout by a magnificent performance: virtuosic when called for, seamlessly lyrical on other occasions. This is truly a scandalously neglected score, as is most of this distinguished composer’s art: let us hope we do not have to wait until his 90th-birthday in 2016 before we hear more of his music from the BBC.
Philip Wilby’s Euphonium Concerto (1995) is new to me: what cannot be denied is that it is supremely well written for both the solo instrument and the orchestra. It was originally for euphonium and brass band, and was written for David Childs’s father, Robert, then in the Black Dyke Mills Band. The orchestral version was made in 2000 for his son to participate in the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition: it is a considerable tour de force for both soloist and (on this occasion) orchestra. In two parts, each of two movements, it is surely the second movement of Part One that will blow you away. Here is an absolutely brilliant piece of music, demanding in the extreme for the soloist, and is often performed separately in the brass band version – I should think so! This is literally breathtaking music, dazzlingly played. (But, at the very end of this section, is the oddly untidy percussion pay-off an accident or part of the score?) Part Two opens with a slow movement, enhanced by the lyrical qualities of the instrument. I can well imagine any self-respecting composer beating a path to Childs’s front door seeking a commission. Bringing this endearing work to its end is a brief finale.
At 22 minutes, the prolific Alun Hoddinott’s The Sunne Rising – The King Will Ride is the longest work here. It is in six “paragraphs”, played continuously. The title comes from John Donne which was added after the music had been written: it seemed to match the character of the work admirably, but the Concerto is not programmatic – rather is it like Hoddinott’s Noctis Equi (Horses of the Night), for cello and orchestra, written for, premiered and recorded by Rostropovich.
Hoddinott’s Euphonium Concerto is of a solo line against a myriad orchestral tapestry, the soloist taking the role of an individual, leading, musing, imploring, but at all times very much in charge. The second paragraph – a quicksilver scherzo – is highly virtuosic, and one may well understand Childs’s comment on the work that it constitutes one of the most challenging of the pieces he has commissioned thus far. Deeply serious, there is no ‘lightening of mood’ in this work: throughout, the listener is enjoined to concentrate upon the passage of the music, but I can assure that it offers considerable dividends, and surely cannot be played better than it is here; it is also the kind of work that ought to inspire younger composers to investigate the euphonium as a solo instrument, particularly the astonishing cadenza which ends the fifth paragraph, leading to the final, mysteriously fast, section.
Karl Jenkins’s Euphonium Concerto is the most recent: composed in 2009, the world-wide success this composer has justifiably enjoyed may be enhanced by this work, a lighter piece in intent and achievement than the others here, although it is equally extremely well written, doubtless as a consequence of the soloist being involved in demonstrating what can (and cannot!) be achieved on the euphonium. As with almost all of this composer’s work I have heard, the music is concerned with the juxtaposition of mood rather than pursuing any inherent developmental qualities. It makes a more than pleasant score, as well as being brilliantly and effectively orchestrated in such a way that the soloist is never obscured or has to fight for prominence.
The first of its four movements is entitled ‘The Juggler’ – an apt title; the second is a ‘Romanza’, melodious and gently flowing; the third, ‘It takes two...’ is like a slow Hispanic-style tango for the BBC’s ‘Strictly’, if a little more up-market: where one might hope for a truly memorable phrase, it does not quite arrive, effective enough, if rather long-winded; and the finale, ‘A Troika? Tidy’, is a piece which in an earlier age would have been termed ‘characteristic’, but it’s fun. Brilliant and effective, interrupted by a slower melodic section for the orchestra, lightly scored, the return of the quickening euphonium in the cadenza brings the work to a panting conclusion.
As if inspired by the extensive musicianship of its soloist, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales backs Childs to the hilt – but then it has the superb Bramwell Tovey conducting, which more than adds to the appeal of this remarkable and wholly successful release, which is outstandingly well recorded and balanced.