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Review: Mosaic - A4 Brass Quartet

Thursday 9 September, 2021

Mosaic | A4 Brass Quartet (Jamie Smith, Jonathan Bates, Mike Cavanagh, Chris Robertson) | Somm Recordings


There’s a sense of unashamed defiance about the A4 Brass Quartet; don’t tell this group something can’t be done. From its unconventional line-up
(cornet, tenor horn, baritone and euphonium) to its diverse musical output, the quartet – formed when its members were young students at the RNCM – continues to forge a unique path.

Its second studio album sees the A4 Brass Quartet turn to independent classical recording label Somm Recordings, a clear sign of its intent to widen its musical reach in a release which spans a variety of styles and genres.

Serebrier’s Cuarteto was originally penned for saxophone quartet but has been brilliantly realised in this form by Jonathan Bates. The Meditación opens in sparse, brooding fashion, the haunting lines here and in the Canción delivered effortlessly, bookending the fleeting, flighty Danza. The Ronda provides a jaunty conclusion to this effective arrangement.

In the year in which he would have turned 103, Leonard Bernstein is remembered through his sparkling overture to the operetta Candide. What it may lack in sweeping, symphonic strings, the A4 Brass Quartet makes up for in warmth and sonority, the instrumentation ensuring a rich blend when required.

Receiving its premiere recording is Jonathan Bates’ Toccata 2, a follow-up to his original Toccata, which has become a staple of the ensemble’s repertoire. The latest offering bursts out of the starting blocks, intricate rhythmic patterns weaving together in a work which bristles with energy and purpose.

Bruckner’s Locus Iste has its roots in the sacred choral tradition and the intrinsically vocal nature of the work lends itself so naturally to brass, a homogenous quality evident throughout.

With its unique instrumentation, the A4 Brass Quartet has had to write and arrange aplenty during its existence; lucky then, that Jonathan Bates and Chris Robertson are behind many of the ensemble’s compositions and arrangements. Chris’ arrangement from the Six Romanian Folk Dances, by Bartók, is endearing in its variety, lyrical melodies interspersed with vivacious, up-tempo dances, underpinned by accompaniments which never threaten to dominate. Jonathan takes the lead in his arrangement of Autumn Leaves, a suitably languid feel permeating a score which is neatly imbued with a great variety in tonal colour; at times it’s easy to forget only four players are involved.

Christian Overhead’s 5 Miniatures were dedicated to – and inspired by – the composer’s nephew and nieces. Little musical portraits of sort, there’s almost a resemblance in Elgar’s Enigma Variations in their conception. The excerpts included in this album vary hugely in character and are brought to life in impressive form by the A4 Brass Quartet, often ornate musical lines linking together with great cohesion and delivered with aplomb.

Molly on the Shore, by Percy Grainger, has taken many forms, growing from string quartet and string orchestra to wind band, courtesy of the composer himself, before being realised for orchestra and brass band. This quartet arrangement retains the jaunty poise of the original and is performed with a delightful lightness of touch which strikes a balance between giving the music time and space and retaining a sense of direction in the phrasing.

In stark contrast to the ‘pretty’ melody which preceded it, The Black Dahlia, by Daniel Hall is striking from the off. Inspired by the gruesome murder of actress Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 2018, the piece won the ensemble’s inaugural composition competition in 2018 and brings to life in music with disturbing effectiveness some of the horrific final moments of the young woman’s life. From the frantic panic of the chase to her subsequent demise and life ebbing away, the piece remains edge-of-the-seat for the duration.

Tsuna’ngari, by Kentaro Sato and arranged by Jonathan Bates, is the perfect follow-up, a lush melodic feel to this emotive piece, a tribute to the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan; well-considered.

Bramwell Tovey’s Street Songs was commissioned by, and dedicated to, the A4 Brass Quartet. Receiving its first recording, the piece comprises four sharply contrasting movements, the almost conversational In Strict Laid Back Time giving way to a jazz-infused Brazen. There’s a distinct mournful quality to The Silent Voices, inspired by a story from Tovey’s late grandfather, whose military band eventually reunited after the Great War; tragically, only a few members had survived. Very Fast Indeed, in contrast, is laced with a jovial quality, the sort of which would have served to keep up the spirits of the men fighting in conditions beyond the comprehension of those who were not present to witness them.

Salut d’Amour brings down the curtain on this album in endearing fashion, the tender melody elegant in its execution and accompaniment.

Mosaic is a treasure trove of musical delights. Accompanied by informative sleeve notes, the album’s quality is testament to the ambition of the outstanding A4 Brass Quartet, an ensemble for which challenging the status quo has become second nature. At its core is a desire to entertain and this it does with gusto; bravo.

Mark Good

Programme: 4

Performance: 5

Overall Presentation: 5

Recording Quality: 5