“Mysteries of the Horizon” NAXOS CD Reviews

 

Grimethorpe Colliery Band

Harmen Vanhoorne (solo cornet)

Conductors: Nigel Clarke, David Thornton, Sandy Smith

Nigel CLARKE (b. 1960)
Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock (2016, rev 2019) [15:22]
Swift Severn’s Flood (2009) [14:35]
Mysteries of the Horizon (2012) [21:04]
Earthrise (2010) [18:00]
rec. 2019, The Foundry, Sheffield, UK
NAXOS 8.574097 [69:14]

 

Naxos and Toccata Classics have done much for Nigel Clarke’s imaginatively conceived and fastidiously crafted music in the last few years. By now each has issued a couple of portrait discs dedicated to this versatile composer, whilst single works of his crop up in anthologies to be found among the catalogues of both labels and elsewhere. Earthrise has previously featured on a Naxos miscellany (8.573184) of wind band music in the composer’s own transcription (from the brass band original) and played by Clarke’s most enthusiastic American collaborators, the exceptional Middle Tennessee State University Wind Ensemble under Reed Thomas; meanwhile on Toccata the same group accompanies the Belgian soloist Harmen Vanhoorne in an arrangement of another of the brass band originals on the present issue, the cornet concerto Mysteries of the Horizon which Rob Barnett enjoyed a couple of years ago – review. Both types of ensemble have their adherents and Clarke’s pieces work equally effectively for both. Brass Band afficionados will certainly want the new disc regardless as it marks the Naxos debut of the mighty Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

Clarke has produced a number of successful film and documentary scores so it is fitting that the opening item on the new disc is Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock, which proves to be less of a tribute to the great director than it is a homage to film noir in general. The ‘titles’ music settles briefly into a pulse that would not shame a Lalo Schifrin soundtrack, while the sequences of rapid repeated notes and Grimethorpe’s supremely crisp ensemble will be a treat for those who appreciate brass band virtuosity. At 3:21 a bell-tree and assorted tuned percussion launch a gentler, romantic passage, presumably alluding to the seductive charms of some doomed femme fatale. A not quite blood-curdling scream then precipitates a jagged, eventful montage of flutterings, mutes and half-light. As the booklet note suggests the melodic and harmonic stylings are not a million miles from classic Hollywood, though hearing them via the medium of a virtuosic brass band is simultaneously riveting and disconcerting. In due course the romantic theme that’s been hinted at escapes from the texture by way of a smoky, muted trumpet and inveigles itself under one’s skin, where it will remain. Thereafter a riot of police sirens, tapping keys and other subtle effects trigger a rather cartoonish passage before a final reprise of the big tune leads to a volley of false endings. Dial H for Hitchcock is a brilliant whimsy; adroitly written and spectacularly performed– a superb vehicle for the band.

Swift Severn’s Flood is inspired by an entirely different kind of action-packed drama; the bloody one-on-one fight between Edmund Mortimer and Owen Glendower to which Shakespeare refers in Act 1 of Henry IV Part 1. Clarke’s depiction is brittle, brutal and atmospheric; martial drum tattoos and eerie, howling wind effects are the order of the day. After a strange climax early on in the piece the music seems to splinter and be pulled in opposing directions – a muted slow passage relegates the drums to the far distance, an atmospheric episode which is apparently rooted in monastic chant and is subtly projected by the Grimethorpe players. It’s a piece which convincingly melds epic nobility, brute force and haunted, rainswept nocturne; the juxtaposition of contrasting moods is certainly angular but instinctive rather than jarring. Clarke’s judiciously deployed lyrical ideas fleetingly suggest Walton’s great Shakespearean scores.

The surreal paintings of René Magritte convey a powerful paradox between the inertia of the objects that inhabit them and the unlimited implications of their inter-relationships. The four movements of the cornet concerto Mysteries of the Horizon (itself the title of a Magritte picture) are each inspired by a single work. The Menaced Assassin seems to address that image’s rich tension between explicit threat and mystery, hence forceful tutti passages form a backdrop to quieter, more ominous materials. I prefer the sharpness of this brass band original to Clarke’s wind band transcription; in both cases Vanhoorne emerges as a magnificent soloist, thrilling in his florid, gymnastic runs and in the mini-cadenza prior to the movement’s conclusion. The Dominion of Light is more nuanced, muted and gloomy in mood. Bells and glockenspiel prick its surfaces and imply elusive half-light and approaching darkness that never fully materialises. Clarke’s music is rich in suggestion. In The Flavour of Tears an extended, slow-burning melody slithers among an undergrowth of rather modal harmony and morphs into something lucid, memorable and even tragic – it’s powerfully translated by Vanhoorne and reinforces Clarke’s reputation as a composer who is led by the image (this is true of all four works on this disc) to produce substantial music of lasting power. The Discovery of Fire (somewhat inevitably for this piece, that’s the name of Magritte’s notorious image of a burning tuba) is the most virtuosic panel of all. After a brief, rapid declamation, Vanhoorne conveys Clarke’s flight-of-the-bumblebee-edge-of-the-seat solo writing with exemplary clarity against an ever-shifting collage of brass band texture. The Discovery of Fire is thrilling, effectively a concerto for brass band which happens to be led by a solo cornet.

I listened to the wind band arrangement of Earthrise on the Reed Thomas Tennessee disc and felt the broader colour palette Clarke deploys to be eminently suitable for a tone-poem inspired by spaceflight; the higher registers involved are imaginatively harnessed to evoke both speed and ethereality. But the phenomenal virtuosity involved in this new Grimethorpe account is stunning, and epitomises the long-standing tradition of the band’s enthusiastic, almost competitive engagement with contemporary music. The opening gesture of Earthrise is shattering; explosive, jagged power-chords, tinged with bells and vibraphone proffer no concession whatsoever to melody or easy atmospherics, though the calmer, more lilting textures that follow hint at the extraordinary evocation of weightlessness to come (from 5:34). As ever in Clarke’s music for this medium, his tone-painting is of a very high order as shards of the recurring theme float variously around the sound capsule against a static background, in time this yields to a more melodic, even romantic episode which is scored for the full ensemble. From 14:20 the return to Earth is characterised by hurtling, spiralling figures, a kind of ordered free-fall before a huge drum tattoo prefigures re-entry and splashdown –and a spectacular bells-and-whistles finish.

Nigel Clarke’s music for band is as superbly crafted and serious in intent as his output for other forces; in my view he is certainly up there with Robert Simpson and John McCabe as an example of a first-class musician who enthusiastically (and instinctively) seizes the unique sonic opportunities offered by this medium. On the evidence of this disc the respect seems mutual; the Grimethorpe players (variously directed here by David Thornton and Sandy Smith as well as the composer) perform as though their lives depended on it. The Naxos recording (made in the sympathetic acoustic of The Foundry in Sheffield) is top notch, exuding biting clarity from first note to last. Although it’s the latest disc in the label’s occasional ‘Brass Band Classics’ strand, I implore non-specialist listeners to take the plunge.

Richard Hanlon

Nigel Clarke – Mysteries of the Horizon – Grimethorpe Colliery Band

 For many years now Nigel Clarke has enjoyed a close working relationship with Grimethorpe Colliery Band in a symbiotic creative friendship that has allowed the band’s ‘International Composer in Association’ to work collaboratively with the band on a number of projects.

 Not surprisingly therefore, that closeness bears obvious fruit in this new recording on the mainstream classical label Naxos, with the added attraction of a breathtaking cornet soloist in Harmen Vanhoorne, for whom the concerto ‘Mysteries of the Horizon’ was written in 2012.

 Nigel Clarke is something of a creative chameleon; a composer who is able to deftly adapt his ‘pallette’ depending on his musical subject matter. It’s a versatility that stems to some degree from his involvement in film music but also draws on his tendency to write music that is broadly programmatic to some degree. In his own words, “ I love researching a topic for a work and getting excited about the subject matter”.

 As a consequence his music is often eclectic in nature, boldly virtuosic and imbued with his innate fascination for colour and timbre.

 All are factors that are brought vividly to life on this new disc, with all four works displaying the essential hallmarks of Clarke’s compositional personality.

 In ‘Dial H for Hitchcock’ it is the Bernard Hermanesque undertones of film noir that predominate, complete with the essential scream, revolver shot and wailing police siren. The plot is an imaginary one in which the listener finds their own story in the music, whilst the music itself conjures with atmospheric images of smoke hazed bars, bristling masculinity, vulnerable heroines and an innate sense of cinematic control of tension.

 

‘Swift Severn’s Flood’ could hardly be more removed from Hitchcock in its subject matter, painting by turns a darkly hued and brutally aggressive depiction of Shakespeare’s graphic portrayal of Sir Edmund de Mortimer’s battle with Owain Glyndwr on the banks of the River Severn in Henry IV Part 1. Glistening with cascading virtuosity in the form of quasi heraldic bravura, it again sits in stark contrast to ‘Earthrise’, a graphically powerful depiction of rocket fuelled musical propulsion and energy inspired by the space mission of Apollo 8 in 1968 which for all its thrust and momentum, features an atmospheric and beautifully tranquil stillness at its heart.            

 The stand out piece in all respects however is Nigel Clarke’s gargantuan tour de force of a cornet concerto ‘Mysteries of the Horizon’. Inspired by the paintings of Rene Magritte and serving as a dauntingly stamina sapping vehicle for the talents of Harmen Vanhoorne, the soloist responds in stunning fashion, displaying a range of dynamics and tonal variation that is at times hair raising in its sheer commitment and breathtaking virtuosity and drama. With four highly contrasting movements that each respond to a specific Magritte painting, the work sits as a surrealist inspired tour de force that plays magnificently and deeply personally to Vanhoorne’s outstanding talents.   

 Under the direction David Thornton and Sandy Smith, Grimethorpe displays a flair for Clarke’s music that make for exhilarating listening whilst adding another vital brass band disc to the Naxos catalogue. 

Chris Thomas

Programme 5 / Performance 4 / Recording 5 / Presentation 4 

Review: Grimethorpe Colliery Band – Mysteries of the Horizon. Conductors: Nigel Clarke, David Thornton, Sandy Smith. Naxos.

This disc provides a superb showcase for attractive brass band compositions by Nigel Clarke (b 1960) as well as a delightful vehicle for enjoying Grimethorpe Colliery Band in peak form. Four significant, varied works receive excellent performances; the recording quality is top drawer, and the overall production and presentation very fine.

Released on the international Naxos label, it should draw widespread, keen attention to both composer and band. Clarke’s style, intense and at times bitingly aggressive, suits Grimethorpe well. He scores effectively for brass band, with a particularly fine use of percussion, expanding his colour palette in compelling manner.

The four works are different enough to keep the attentive listener engaged, while allowing one to admire Clarke’s subtle reliance on motivic unity that keeps his eclectic pieces tightly wrought. The centerpiece, Mysteries of the Horizon: Concerto in Four Movements for Cornet and Brass Band, was written for the featured cornet soloist from Belgium, Harmen Vanhoorne. He is outstanding throughout the major work, providing bravura technique, warm, lyrical tone, and, above all, high energy that drives forward the solo—tutti dialogue throughout all four movements.

The composer bases his concerto on four paintings by the Belgian Surrealist painter, Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The movements are: 1) The Menaced Assassin; 2) The Dominion of Light; 3) The Flavour of Tears; 4) The Discovery of Fire. One does not need to know these paintings (though easily accessed online) to be drawn into the intense musical dramas Clarke unfolds, frequently via intense, aggressive dissonance, particularly in movements one, two and four. Flavour, mostly in minor mode and more consonant, contrasts well with the others. This work is as much a ‘symphony’ as a concerto. Movement two is a tight, short scherzo and in the finale, Discovery, Clarke brings back his motivic style with cyclic reference to the opening movement for a satisfying conclusion topped off by a riveting cadenza from the excellent soloist.

The disc opens with Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock: A Psychological Thriller for Brass Band. It is a thriller for the listener as well, the band playing so well. Clarke’s title is a play on the film Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 crime thriller. The inclusion of a sudden female scream, gun sounds, and police car sirens seems appropriate.

We can read in the informative CD booklet notes by Sheila Wilson that Clarke has had good experience as a film composer, standing him in good stead here, right from the aggressive opening double-tongued figurations, a descending series of chord clusters, and the highly contrasting, lyrical middle ‘love song.’ Bracing stuff – fans of ‘noir’ atmosphere will be delighted.

The remaining two works can be labelled more traditional in sound, if no less interesting. Swift Severn Flood: A Shakespeare Drama for Brass Band takes us back to the era of Henry IV where militaristic march music, again brash and aggressive, contrasts with more wistful, quieter impressionistic devices, including brass players evoking wind sounds without pitch. At nearly 15 minutes it should prove a highly engaging, yet accessible concert work.

Perhaps even more accessible is the disc closer, again a major work of 18 minutes: Earthrise, after a photo taken from Apollo 8 in 1968. The evocative tone picture in some ways encapsulates all the attractive aspects of Clarke’s style and the band is as expected in top form. A brash sound dominates but the middle portion, beautifully static and consonant, is most poignant. One accepts gladly the triumphant ending that follows – even a big tune.

This is a wonderful disc; I highly recommend.

Ronald W Holz

Programme: ***** / Performance: ***** / Overall Presentation: ***** / Recording Quality: *****

 

 

In an age when preconceived ignorance devalues debate, the surreal images of Belgian artist Rene Magritte remain wonderfully agnostic in the way they slyly undermine ingrained misconceptions of certainty.

As philosopher Marcel Paquet remarked; his works display, “thought rendered visible”.

Who else can make you believe that you get away with murder bypassing the laws of physics as in ‘The Menaced Assassin’, or that there is a fundamental conceit clinging to familiarity as in ‘The Dominion of Light’  (a scene he painted no less than 27 times)?

In Magritte’s world view, nothing is as certain as it seems.

To him we are all bowler-hatted Mr Averages. We are left to seethe with misinformed vitriol beneath our identikit appearances at the perceived cultural vandalism of ‘The Discovery of Fire’  (painted in 1934), or the disintegrating peace of post war Europe in ‘The Flavour of Tears’  (1948).

Questioning everyman

All those hidden sentiments and more are also distilled into Nigel Clarke’s exceptional cornet concerto, ‘Mysteries of the Horizon’  (painted in 1955) which forms the superbly performed core of this thoroughly engaging, if occasionally inconsistently executed release from Grimethorpe.

Here, Harmen Vanhoorne is cast as the questioning everyman voice stepping into the heart of each Magritte frame; at times frustrated, vicious and strident, at others sombre, delicate and melancholic.

It is a stunning performance of commanding artistry and facility, rich in character (aided by reading Martin Westlake’s elegantly subverting poem) and intelligence.

Here, Harmen Vanhoorne is cast as the questioning everyman voice stepping into the heart of each Magritte frame; at times frustrated, vicious and strident, at others sombre, delicate and melancholic.

Immoral ambiguities

‘Dial ‘H’ for Hitchcock’  is Clarke’s homage to the film scores of Bernard Hermann, Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman – a ‘psychological thriller for brass band’.

Music was integral to the great director’s storytelling (think of the shower scene in ‘Psycho’) – infusing the immoral ambiguities of human nature into the mind’s eye with an immersive aural trigger mechanism; obsession, voyeurism and cold-eyed homicidal intent played out to screeching strings and discordant tensions.

Hourglass hips and monastic piety

Clarke revels in his own characterisation; from sashaying hourglass hips of peroxide femme-fatales to the sour aftertaste of stale alcohol and sweaty indiscretions that invariably lead to the frenzied horror of chilling murder.  It is a world premiere of engrossing film-noire imagery.

Clarke revels in his own characterisation; from sashaying hourglass hips of peroxide femme-fatales to the sour aftertaste of stale alcohol and sweaty indiscretions that invariably lead to the frenzied horror of chilling murder.

Shakespearean murderous intent has certainly inspired many film directors, and ‘Swift Severn’s Flood’, Clarke’s depiction of Sir Edmund de Mortimer’s battle with Owain Glyndwr in 1402, is bloodied and brutal – bathed, as were most excuses for 15th century indiscriminate slaughter, in monastic piety.

You can smell the fear and loathing in the air.

Iconic image

Power and piety of a different kind round off the release; and the man-made effort required to transport astronauts to the heavens. There they saw our blue planet floating in monochrome darkness – an iconic image captured by the ‘Earthrise’  photograph taken on board the Apollo 8 spacecraft.

It is an imposing work of energy and enigmatic beauty; from the thrust of the great Saturn V rocket at launch to the free-floating calm of orbit and that glimpse of the fragility of mankind thousands of miles below. The return, full of anxiety and glowing heat climaxes in a triumphant splashdown.

What Magritte would have made of it is anyone’s guess, but Nigel Clarke’s musical portraiture does it full justice.

Iwan Fox

Der britische Komponist Nigel Clarke ist bekannt für äußerst virtuose Kompositionen für Brass Band. Und was auf einer CD von Naxos zu Gehör gebracht wird, ist so fetzend, dass man als Hörer kaum zur Besinnung kommt. Clarkes Musik ist quasi ständig in heftiger Bewegung, atemlos, mit quirligen, drastisch wirbelnden Tunes. und fordert von den Musikern des Grimethorpe Colliery Band Schwerstarbeit. Aber sie meistern die verrückt virtuosen Stücke ganz toll. Für den Zuhörer ist es nicht weniger anfordernd. Vielleicht soll man die CD nur stückchenweise hören. © 2020 Pizzicato

The British composer Nigel Clarke is known for extremely virtuosic compositions for brass band. And what is heard on a CD by Naxos is so rousing that listeners can hardly come to their senses. Clarke’s music is almost constantly in violent motion, breathless, with lively, drastically swirling tunes, and demands hard work from the musicians of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. But they master the crazy virtuoso pieces really well. It is no less demanding for the listener. Perhaps you should only hear the CD piece by piece. © 2020 Pizzicato

 

Quite aside from its movie-ready story (which in fact was the basis for the film Brassed Off), the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, until recently the house band of a coal mine, has continued to develop its talents in collaboration with a variety of contemporary composers. One is Nigel Clarke, with which the group has worked on an ongoing basis, but not all the music here was composed for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Two works were written for the Brass Band Buizingen in Belgium, and one for perhaps the Grimethorpe‘s primary rival in Britain, the Black Dyke Mills Band. All of this information points toward the role the group has played in nurturing a body of virtuoso band music in Britain, and virtuoso is the key word here. All four of the works call for extremely athletic playing, not only for one or two players but across the ensemble, which generally moves in rapid multipart polyphony. The pieces are all programmatic and call for a variety of extended-technique effects, such as the windstorm sounds in the high-powered Swift Severn’s Flood (2009). Mysteries of the Horizon is a cornet concerto ideally suited for players who want a really difficult one; it is inspired by a quartet of surrealist paintings by René Magritte. There’s lots here for anyone interested in the brass band repertory, and Americans may be particularly intrigued. The orientation in Britain and Europe toward more progressive forms of contemporary band music is stronger than in the U.S., and for those who are just discovering this remarkable band, a treat is in store.

Review James Manheim 4.5 out to of 5 starts for this recording.

David’s Review Corner, April 2020

Starting his career as a trumpeter, the English-born Nigel Clarke celebrates his sixtieth birthday year as a highly regarded brass band composer and conductor.

It is a musical genre that is much regarded as a British preserve, and in the world of ‘middle-of-the road’ music, Clarke belonging to that group of composers who use both tonal and atonal music to create a very personal voice using a vast range of colours, the present disc covering works from the last decade. I do not know whether or not this is a complement, but he is so skillful in his use of brass instruments that you do not miss the presence of strings in most of the disc that has its roots in the symphonic output. The spooky atmosphere of Hitchcock films is captured in an imaginary film score, the band revelling in the virtuosity of a score written for them. Dating back to the employees of a coal mine in Yorkshire, the largest county in the UK, it is by far the nation’s best known band, and, arguably the best known in much of the brass band world. Their brilliance is quite staggering, that requirement equally called upon in Swift Severn’s Flood based on a blood-thirsty episode on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. Mysteries of the Horizon, a four movement concerto for cornet, and composed for the soloist on this release, the Belgium, Harmen Vanhoorne, who has been described as ‘one of the most exciting young brass players of his generation’. The score offers four pictures that fit the title, apart from a technical showpiece, it also displays Vanhoorne’s gorgeously smooth qualities. Finally Earthrise is a depiction of man’s first journey to the moon, and is Naxos’s second recording. Often hard-hitting, this spacious and vivid recording, is a disc for everyone and an essential purchase for those of the brass band fraternity. © 2020 David’s Review Corner

David Denton

 

 

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