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Review: In the Spotlight - Russell Gray | St Thomas' Church, Stockport | Broadcast: November 2020

Tuesday 17 November, 2020

Review: In the Spotlight - Russell Gray | St Thomas' Church, Stockport | Broadcast: November 2020

In a series that has already showcased an array of fantastic soloists, it was recently the turn of cornet legend Russell Gray to take to the stage in’s In the Spotlight. The former Leyland principal cornet and current Foden’s professional conductor is a personality who needs little introduction, and alongside presenter Martin Gernon, it proved to be a fascinating insight into the successes of Russell Gray’s career.

Russell is primarily a conductor these days but as they say, class is permanent and this was a recital of the highest quality in performance and presentation.

It was incredibly fitting that this performance was dedicated to the late Richard Scott, in a week that marks one year since the sad passing of the former World of Brass sound engineer.

In a recital hallmarked with tradition, Russell opened with the timeless Percy Code classic Zelda. A staple in the cornet repertoire well known for the light, joyful melodies and impressive virtuosity, Russell made it look so easy. The opening melodic motifs were playful, with rubato used to perfection, while the flourishing conclusion flew along with ease. This is certainly a rendition that cornet players should listen to and admire, with inspiration taken from Harry Mortimer’s original copy from the 1930s. We were treated to interesting conversations between Martin Gernon and Russell Gray, delving deeper into what made Russell the musician he is today.

One clear inspiration for Russell is Wynton Marsalis, with two pieces from Winton’s book Carnival chosen for this recital. The first of these two pieces is a beautiful arrangement of Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms by Donald Hunsberger. It’s so easy to forget how difficult slow melodies are to play when they are executed with such control and fluidity, but the conversational playing between Russell and the exceptional pianist Ruth Hollick was simply breath-taking. There is a vocal quality to Russell’s sound, simplistic beauty at its very best.

It is well known that Russell Gray has been heavily involved with Yamaha for a number of years, first influencing the design of the famous Maestro range of instruments. The most recent model is the Neo, with Russell outlining the excellence and consistency that Yamaha provides with every instrument. To highlight his point, Russell chose to play an unaccompanied piece by Claude Debussy entitled Syrinx. When this was originally written for flute in 1913, there were no bar-lines, essentially creating an elongated cadenza. The freedom of time and timbre displayed by Russell brought this to life, with emotions of despair and mystery clearly portrayed. The phrasing and pacing throughout was magic and the last note of this piece could only be described as the work of a master, fading away to nothing with control and sensitivity.

Returning to the repertoire of Percy Code, the next offering in this recital was a relatively unheard piece entitled At Dawn. During one of Russell’s ventures to Australia, he gained access to a library of works by Percy Code that had not been released to the general public. At Dawn is a quaint Edwardian waltz, played with a beautiful ebb and flow that is so befitting of this genre, graceful, characterful and light. Hopefully this will not be the last time we hear this hidden gem from the pen of a true master of solo writing.

For the finale of this programme, Grand Russian Fantasia by Jules Levy provided an exciting and impressive conclusion. This piece was the second chosen for this recital from the Carnival book by Wynton Marsalis, written in a theme and variations structure. Russian music has a dark, arrogant quality to it but the selection of themes used in this work contrast each other so well, creating such interest for the listener. Russell Gray had full appreciation of the style changes at all times, with stunning virtuosity as the variations progressed. To quote Russell in the conversation before playing this solo: “I just wanted to see how fast my fingers move.” It is safe to say there were no issues there, with stunning clarity and triple tonguing as smooth as you could wish to hear. This performance encapsulated exactly why Russell Gray is regarding as one of the finest performers that has graced the brass banding scene.

The encore of The Last Rose of Summer cleansed the palate with another display of beautiful phrasing and artistry, bringing a recital of intriguing content and unbelievable playing to a close.

A must watch for sure, from one of the most talented and modest musicians in our treasured movement.

Matthew Rowe