The brass quintet as a genre
Some hold the tenuous belief that the ancestry of the brass quintet is ancient and unbroken. It is claimed that the Stadtpfeifers and piffari (groups of players - often five - playing cornetts and trombones, that were ubiquitous in European musical and civic life in the sixteenth century) provide the origin for a linear brass ensemble tradition, of which the instrumentation featured on this CD is merely the latest manifestation. This, of course, is not true, because it ignores key elements in the musical identity of the brass quintet as we now know it. While the medium originated in the nineteenth century (there is a small but significant repertoire from this period), it only really attained the status of a genre in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, to claim that the brass quintet is anything other than a relatively modern phenomenon is akin to drawing a causal link between the horse-drawn cart and the motor car on the basis that both are vehicles with wheels.
In truth, the brass quintet has become the most coherent expression of modern brass chamber music. It gained this level of maturity when it acquired the four vital ingredients that all standard instrumental groupings need in order to be recognised as such: an extensive repertoire, specialist virtuoso performers, a critical audience, and above all, a distinctive idiom. Each of these ingredients emerged in the late nineteenth century, but it was only after the Second World War that the grouping of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba attracted important composers in any quantity. The appearance of a procession of exemplary and virtuoso groups, particularly in the UK and north America (the Philip Jones Quintet, the New York Brass Quintet, Empire Brass, Canadian Brass and the Wallace Collection for example), induced a repertoire, partly through direct commissions and partly by stirring the creative imagination of composers who would not otherwise have been attracted to the medium.
The audience for brass ensemble music has always been buoyant because of the ubiquity of amateur brass playing and its enthusiasm for virtuosity. But the major artistic turn came when the repertoire for the brass quintet passed beyond being merely a vehicle for entertainment and virtuosic display, and started conveying a mode of expression that was at first distinctively and then utterly idiomatic. It was at this time that the brass quintet repertoire moved into the musical mainstream and became subject to the same critical reception as other contemporary works. Various important composers possessed of distinctive musical languages created a repertoire that is stylistically diverse and vibrant. It is this fundamentally important trend that is exemplified on this CD. The five works display individual compositional styles interacting with the broad palette of timbres that the brass quintet has come to own. It shows the medium to be possessed of an idiomatic language with an extraordinarily wide and expanding vocabulary.
Brass with percussion and as percussion
The title ‘Hammered Brass' originates partly in the title of one of the works included, but also in a particular aspect of the brass sound world. A noticeable feature of the modernist exploitation of brass technique is composers' enthusiasm to draw on the range of articulations that players can employ: some are virtually imperceptible, but others are emphatic, percussive and even explosive. This multi-faceted and essentially unique character of the brass idiom is a foreground feature in each piece on this disc. It gains an even more explicit and colourful emphasis in the works (by Crawford and Xenakis) in which an extra layer of percussion timbres is added.
The Quintet (Variazioni sul'uno Corale) by the Czech composer Petr Eben (b.1929), written in 1969, is the earliest work on this disc. Eben's style is eclectic, often blending disparate textures and tonalities with references to earlier forms and styles. The five variations are based on a fifteenth-century chorale theme. In the five variations the texture is organised by juxtaposing different permutations of instruments against others.
Call was written by Luciano Berio (b.1925) in response to a commission from the Nashville Brass Quintet in 1985. The meaning of the title is apparent from the opening phrase. A short (single-movement) but remarkable work, it shows a continuation of Berio's relentless exploration of the brass idiom that was evident in his iconoclastic Sequenzas for trombone (1966) and trumpet (1984).
Hammered Brass for brass quintet and percussion by Robert Crawford (b.1925) was commissioned by the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust, completed in 1995 and first performed by the Wallace Collection. The composer calls it ‘A collection of studies for brass quintet and percussion'. These studies are ‘linked as in a chain, celebrating the age-old skills of craftsmen working with various metals, some of them to make instruments which could be blown or struck as in this work'. Thus, after a brief introduction, the work moves seamlessly through sections in which the ideas are derived from the processes of manufacture of Pewter, Silver Filigree, Gold Leaf, Bronze and Burnished Brass.
Khal Perr by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), written in 1983 and first performed by the Quintette Arban with Alsace Percussions in Beaune in the same year, is a single-movement work for brass quintet and two percussion players. Xenakis, like Berio, has shown a particular interest in the brass idiom. His compositional technique and sound palette is extraordinarily wide. Here his interest in the density and volume of sound (preoccupations shared with Messiaen and Varèse) are especially evident. As to the meaning of 'Khal Perr'? Xenakis provides no clues, but in the Romany language the two words mean 'walking dance' - a speculative interpretation perhaps, but an interesting one.
The final work is the quintet Full Fathom Five by Steve Martland (b. 1959). It was written in response to a commission from Festival Confrontaties and first performed by Thames Brass in Rotterdam in 1993. Its title is a quotation from Shakespeare's The Tempest. In each of the four movements explosive, percussive articulations are spread, often hocket-like, across the five instruments. Interchanges of short crisp phrases create a compelling momentum and a beguiling array of heady rhythms. Trevor Herbert
Produced and edited by Mike Purton
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Recorded at St Jude's Church, Muswell Hill, London, 7-9 December 2000