FringeReview UK 2018
Founder trombonist Richard Buck with Timothy Ellis on French horn, are joined on this occasion at the Chapel Royal by trumpeter Katie Lodge to perform Andrea Gabrieli, Verhelst, Brahms, Mozart, Ayer, Novello and Judge.
Buck Brass are a talented, sassy and personable bunch, making their third visit here at Chapel Royal in recent years. Formed at the Royal Academy of Music in 2012, they make light of their pioneering line-up: performing as a trio or occasionally quartet. Quintets are better known. You get wind trios and quintets so why not? Lots of arrangements but some unique works too.
Founder trombonist Richard Buck with Timothy Ellis on French horn, are joined on this occasion by trumpeter Katie Lodge as their long term trumpeter Daniel Walton’s in Dubai. Lodge is another more recent RAM graduate and they blend perfectly. They all enjoy busy careers elsewhere with orchestras. Ellis, a pianist too, appears on the soundtrack of the film Dunkirk. Buck’s a marathon runner slowly learning Arabic. Their website’s attractive and a statement of intent: they’re cornering a niche.
The sound they make – ripe, mellow, never strident or overly big for their venue – allows a diverse repertoire. Medium roast blend perhaps
This was admirably proved in the subtlety of their first piece, Venetian brass and vocal motet composer Andrea Gabrieli (1520-86) uncle of the more famous Giovanni (1555-1612). Though Spain and Italy feature religious works around this time with brass (say the Sevillian Francisco Guerrero), these are pretty much the first instrumental brass pieces anywhere.
There’s poise here, and gentle polyphony taking cues from a vocal original is really welcome The nephew developed this into a more consciously virtuoso manner, though it was Andrea I think who started those spectacular echo effects around St Mark’s. It’s be good to have half a programme of these two and perhaps other figures.
Next was a 2011 piece by a Dutch composer I’ve never heard of. Steven Verhelst composed A Song for Japan in the wake of the 2011 tsunami, just as another’s tragically in the news. Its tuneful, attractive music, which perhaps isn’t meant to be the point. There’s the kind of modulations you might encounter in film music, with more that kind of pared-down sound world than obvious minimalism. It slips by and you want to hear it again.
An arrangement of Brahms’ motet ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ does service in reanimating the Romantic-polyphonic lines of a composer steeped in knowledge of older musics. It’s muted and not the Brahms you expect. But then it’s a shock to recall that most of Brahms’ output in opus numbers are songs. Something you expect in Schubert, even Schumann and of course specialists like Wolf. But here Brahms’ more vocal expressivity reveals a reflective side and this arrangement a kind of oblique light. It’s again a full-sounding but quietly swelling piece.
Then something completely different, popular arrangements, designed to fit the mood of 1918. Nat Ayer’s and Clifford Grey’s 1916 ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’ was prefaced by Buck with a fervent recommendation to check out the Dean Martin rendition, which I duly did. He’s right, it’s enchanting and that vocality, the mellow dark croon stretched out, is what this performance got too. Lodge’s trumpet never snarls through the texture, Ellis’ horn swells the atmosphere and Buck’s trombone lies along Lodge’s sonority. What’s also noticeable is how the players relish the less familiar opening – the bit we forget – as a real instrumental introduction.
Ivor Novello’s 1914 hit ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ received similar treatment. And again that instrumental intro is relished with new details to make the song bigger than just itself. Of course the blend in the refrain is magical, but it works throughout and expands the song.
With Mozart’s Divertimento no.4 in C major K.229/439b we’re on familiar ground for these instruments. Composed for three basset horns it’s a piece that needs this line-up unless heard by a very specialist one, and where’s the rest of the three basset-horn repertoire? It’s a four-movement work in the usual allegro style with an open Haydnesque andante, an attractive minuet and finale, sprightly rather than punchy. It’s a cut-down piece in scale as well as instrumentation, one of Mozart’s shorts, where the intention was to create a functional civic piece with some memorable contours. Job done.
That was it officially, but happily a built-in encore in 1918 style was forthcoming. Harry Williams and Jack Judge’s ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was, like the Novello, a piece the audience was commanded to join in with. Well, there was a hesitant singing along, but mostly it was the brass people wanted to hear.
This is consummate professional music-making of a high order, and though specialist in repertoire and sonority, it’s wide on appeal. Judging by the list of current repertoire they provide – and we heard a few items not there, clearly new – it’d be great to hear a further selection – perhaps French, from Ibert and Poulenc.
Buck Brass are to perform at some point at All Saints. I know this because the concert organizer went straight up and asked them. When you see them back in Brighton or Hove, don’t hesitate.