“...highly accomplished, serious minded group...” - Daily Telegraph
“...extraordinary range of sounds and textures...” - The Times
“...near total perfection...” - The Guardian
“...warmly sonorous sound...” - Daily Telegraph
The English Brass Ensemble are a highly accomplished, serious minded group with a repertoire that includes some very demanding items - indeed, does not rely only on fatty trifles and snappy showpieces. They attracted quite a large audience to the Purcell Room for their concert on Saturday evening.
It included no less than four first performances - of two works by British composers which were commissioned by the group, and of two works by Hungarian and Swedish composers which have not been previously heard in this country. A couple of lighter items concluded the halves: Eugene Bozza's preposterous Sonatine and Malcolm Arnold's famous Quintet, which differed from it in impressing upon the listener that the quality of immediate appeal is not separable from real inventiveness.
These works were played with abundant virtuosity which was more explicitly displayed in the new pieces, such as John Howard's Sonata for Brass Quintet, although the crucial requirement of this admirable argument, that it comments on a unison A, was incomprehensibly neglected, and I at first assumed that the composer was exploring microtones. It had a lot to give, however, and deployed unusual sonorities with an imaginative skill just stopping short of the prodigal. John Metcalfe's Quintet was less elaborate in structure but taut, substantial and convincing.
Sandor Balassa's 'Quintetto d'Ottoni' was the major work of the programme - a four-movement conception using a tightly-drawn classically rigorous idiom that did not easily yield its secrets. Bo Nillsen's 'Bass' featured the tubist of the ensemble, who had already shone in the programme, in a strange short solo with gongs.
- Daily Telegraph
It is not easy for a brass group to sustain variety over the length of an entire concert, but The English Brass Ensemble succeeded excellently on Friday night. True, they benefited from having Peter Maxwell Davies's Brass Quintet to introduce, the work receiving its European premiere. But it required a heroic performance, being relentlessly demanding in terms of individual and ensemble technique, and requiring complex multiple nuances of expression. Really, it had an intimacy comparable to that of the finest chamber music.
However new it may be - and the Quintet's thought and feeling maintained startling freshness - there are links with the past to provide helpful guidelines during our early encounters with what is undoubtedly a major work. Thus in the background of the first movement hovers sonata form, there even being an extended slow introduction. The development section, perhaps taking a hint, as the composer implied in his programme note, from Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1, acts as scherzo. Then the music thins out, fragments, disappears.
Again, the second, and most substantial movement, is a set of double variations with the intriguing additional feature that the second theme is infiltrated, so to speak, by elements of the first. Slow though it is, this movement has an air of furious intellectual activity, especially when, after the third variation, the themes begin to fuse. The biggest surprise of the rapid finale comes when, after three brief yet highly active developmental episodes, instead of some sort of cumulative apotheosis there is a reminiscence, in chorale style, of the work's opening, this being hounded off the scene by virtuoso fanfares which lead to the close.
The evening's other majot piece was the older, yet comparatively unknown, Music for Brass Quintet the the American Gunthur Schuller, dating from 1961. This produces an extraordinary range of sounds and textures, partly through the diverse configuration of its phrases. Lutoslawski's piquant, lively Mini-Overture also showed that the limitations of brass ensembles are not quite what they seem, and Roger Steptoes 'The Knight of the Sun' made a free and flexible use of traditional materials.
- The Times
Here was an enterprising morning event, sadly supported only moderately by (Cheltenham) Festival patrons. Perhaps the high reputation of The English Brass Ensemble was outweighed by the makeup of the recital - four pieces by living composers - and by fear that such a concert could be monotonous, or over loud, or both. For this concern there was no cause. The English (Brass Ensemble) are assiduous in observing essential variety in dynamics, and their uncompromising virtuosity includes the dual purpose ability to maintain both the individual timbres and a characterful synthesis of sound.
An important addition to the repertoire had its premiere, Madrigals for Brass Quintet by Peter Racine Fricker, written this year for the performers. Techniques and mannerisms from the Tudor age lie below freshly minted tonalities and rhythmic patterns, the five movements (quick, slow, moderate, slow, quick) forming a taut, balanced structure.
While the programme notes suggested that Andre Previn's Four Outings for Brass guide the listener on a tour covering the USA, Scotland and Berlin, the work reflects the composer's rostrum style - a slick, not to say brash exterior to serious, purposeful musical thought and content, with the use of mutes in the third movement, hinting at Weill, a striking feature.
After a startling Mini-Overture by Lutoslawski, whose textures flowed, effortlessly woven, between the parts, came the main work, the Quintet by Maxwell-Davies. The English (Brass Ensemble) made sense of the extremely difficult score for the hearer, satisfying with near total perfection its daunting technical requirements. It was a privilege to acknowledge such talented musicianship and artistic honesty, and a further pleasure to enjoy, in the 40th year of the Festival a programme devoted to contemporary music, the encouragement of such works having been a basic aim of the founders.
- The Guardian
The warmly sonorous sound of The English Brass Ensemble' rich in the lower register, sweet in trumpet tone, floated impressively round the spacious acoustics of Christ Church, Spitalfields, on Monday night in a programme of Baroque and 20th Century music, given as part ofn the Spitalfields Festival.
They opened with 'Three Sonatas' by Domenico Scarlatti, arrangements of keyboard sonatas by an unknown hand (which was a pity for such a sprightly piece of work) and progressed to the majestic Music for Brass by Locke, bringing to both composers an elegance ofn phrase and a roundly centred tone, which were a joy to hear.
Of the more recent music Richard Rodney Bennett's ‘Commedia IV’ as elegantly composed in both texture and structure as ever, made a fine impression, its mosaic of solo and ensemble sections allowing the players to show their mastery of all aspects of chamber music performance. Similarly, Peter Racine Frickers's 'Madrigals' whose sophisticated allusions to 16th century vocal chamber music bore fruit in an attractive rhythmic play.
For the rest we heard Pendercki's 'Capriccio for Solo Tuba', a jolly little frippery, although it must be admitted, this is a composer whose creative personality dependes on a texture greater than a single line, and finally, John Harle's 'Miles and Miles', whose jazzy processes closed the programme in high spirits.
- Daily Telegraph