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2022 European Brass Band Championships: Challenge Section - live

Sunday 1 May, 2022

Issue 6137 digital April 28, 2022

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Mark Good reporting

 

Challenge Section

 

Draw

1) Hebden Bridge Band (England) Christopher Binns
2) Brass Band Regensburg (Germany) 
3) Downshire Brass (Northern Ireland) Michael Alcorn
4) Brassband Überetsch (Italy) Johann Finatzer

 

An enjoyable contest to get Sunday's proceedings under way. Variations for Brass Band remains a test and the challenges and pitfalls were met with differing degrees of success. Then there were the own-choices and a real variety of music was on display.

As for a prediction, let's opt for:

Prediction

1) Brass Band Regensburg 

2) Downshire Brass 

3) Hebden Bridge Band

4) Brassband Überetsch

 

******

4) Brassband Überetsch (Italy) Johann Finatzer

Bringing the Challenge Section to a conclusion is Italy’s Brassband Überetsch, conducted by Johann Finatzer. Variations for Brass Band is big, if a little splashy, to open.

At full tilt, the sounds are warm and brimming with confidence. It is the more delicate corners of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ score that become a tad brittle. 

The descending, cascading lines are crisp, clean and effective as the Italian band really starts to find its stride in the plush surroundings of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

It took a little time but Brassband Überetsch really settled - and when it did, the Italian outfit seemed to click.

Trittico is suitably majestic to open, if a little loose in the Allegro vivace. The Andante moderato finds an appropriately mournful character. The Allegro con brio surges forward, largely retaining its composure in this brisk reading from Johann Finatzer. 

The lyrical solo lines are neat in their execution, though it would be lovely to have a little more room to breathe. 

There are lots of good intentions from Brassband Überetsch; it just gets little messy. Variation Three is one such place where the delivery isn’t quite as polished as the band might wish. 

The finale of Curnow's score is wonderful writing, so exciting, and Brassband Überetsch wears its heart on its sleeve all the way to the big final moments, bringing the Challenge Section to a conclusion.

******

 

3) Downshire Brass (Northern Ireland) Michael Alcorn

It’s a nicely-gauged opening to Variations for Brass Band from Downshire Brass and Michael Alcorn, a multitude of musical colours rising to the fore, from English grandeur (with a Celtic hint) to the dark, brooding bottom end forces.

Michael Alcorn guides Downshire Brass through an elegant reading of RVW’s work (given a new gloss by Philip Littlemore, along with Stephen Allen). Not everything quite comes to fruition, the ensemble occasionally losing its solidity and some scruffy edges rising to the fore, but it’s a well-informed, nicely shaped account. The score is kept flowing, wherever possible, and it retains its composure to the close.

Soul Trap, by Paul Wilson, is a very different beast, an intriguing choice. It opens ominously - but no less convincingly from the band. Sirens give way to a neat groove, underpinned in secure fashion by percussion and the brass is tight too; those trombone stabs so neat and well-placed.

The sounds are lovely between cornet and baritone, though intonation takes a moment to settle. Here, the work is altogether more contemplative in nature, calling for a warmth - and even affection - that Downshire Brass finds in spades; having five basses might just provide that extra blanket of warmth.

Flugel makes her way to the front of the stage for a fleeting Latin-fused solo, confidently passing the baton to euphonium and trombone.

This is a piece of contrasting styles and Downshire finds the varying musical character effectively. There is a hint of tiredness in the final moments but there was still plenty to enjoy from the Northern Irish band.

******

 

2) Brass Band Regensburg (Germany) 

Brass Band Regensburg opts for its own-choice to open, The Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s grandiose - but disciplined. Only occasionally in the early stages does the ensemble lose its tightness.

The unrelenting semiquaver material is tight, surging forward with gusto and the intricate rhythmic challenges in Philip Sparke’s score are realised very effectively. 

The soprano solo is given time and space, a sweet, endearing sound ringing around Symphony Hall. The confidence is shared in the solo cornet and flugel chair

Fleeting frailties in transitions don’t detract from an otherwise convincing reading as Brass Band Regensburg finds the jovial corners of Sparke’s score so effectively. 

It’s on with the set test, Variations for Brass Band, and Brass Band Regensburg seems in confident mood as it tackles the score from the legendary Vaughan Williams. There’s a sheen to the end-chair sounds around the stand. There’s a neat ebb and flow when required, while the moments of excitement are delivered with consummate ease.

There’s a weighty darkness to the tone of the low end to open the fugal passage; it’s elegantly handled too. The long melodic lines are suitably mellifluous, all the way to the close in what is a throughly enjoyable performance.

 

 ******

1) Hebden Bridge Band (England) Christopher Binns

Hebden Bridge gets under way with its performance of the set test-piece for the 2022 Challenge Section contest, Variations for Brass Band, given a new lease of life by Philip Littlemore, assisted by Stephen Allen.

There’s a fine sense of poise in the opening stages and Christopher Binns ensures good restraint from his charges. The sounds are classy, fine attention to detail in what are often competing textures.

It loses its sheen a little in the nimble material which cascades its way down the band, a little scratchy at times, but much of the detail rings through.

Moving together, quietly, during long tones, in a pressure environment can often bring its own challenges but for the most part, Hebden Bridge demonstrates good control before transitioning into the fugal material. It’s steady and played with pose.

Lions of Legends, the band’s own choice, is spirited to open, fizzing with excitement, gradually giving way to something altogether more lyrical. Exposed solo lines are handled really well, including tenor horn and solo cornet - then there’s that lion backing track, of course.

Depicting the lion through the centuries, the piece calls for some colourful musical storytelling and Hebden Bridge embraces the challenge, bringing the fearsome beast to life very effectively indeed in a dynamic performance.

Euphonium does well, though the long sounds underneath the quasi-cadenza are not entirely settled, intonation rubbing slightly. There are great attempts to keep the sounds very light when required and this is realised very effectively by the Hebden Bridge players. It makes the warm lyricism of what follows all the more effective, the sounds enveloping the audience in Symphony Hall like a comfy blanket.

It’s exciting, not excited, on the way to the close and that’s to the credit of Christopher Binns and his players as they bring their 2022 Challenge Section performance to a close.

******

8.30am

Good morning from Birmingham! The conditions are altogether more overcast today, some drizzle in the air - but the heat will soon rise in Birmingham's Symphony Hall, another day of contesting ahead. It looks like someone is in town, ready for their early draw perhaps...