Mask CD Review – Iwan Fox


Accompanied by The Band of the Light Division, conducted by Major Calum Gray.  Released 2005.

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Iwan Fox 4barsrest, 2005:

Brett Baker is one of the brass band movement's most innovative solo performers. Since the launch of his first CD ‘Bone Idyll' nearly a decade ago, he has featured on five solo recordings as well as over twenty other major releases, and has also been responsible for the commissioning of a number of major new works for trombone from leading brass composers as well having numerous specially written concert items dedicated to him.

He has been one of the banding worlds leading performers on the concert and contest stage, and has never shied away from putting his technique, musicianship and crucially, his reputation on the line by exploring different genres. He may not look it, but he doesn't half have some guts and prize-winning appendages of a Grand National winner to go with all that talent.    

This release entitled, ‘Mask' sees him yet again forge new links and explore new areas with a CD that contains four contemporary trombone concertos from four leading modern English composers – Ivor Hodgson, Derek Bourgeois, Marc Own (from which the title is taken) and Gordon Jacob. In addition he has decided to perform the works with a military band in the form of The Band of the Light Division.

As we have said – he has gone out of his way to try something new and different, to risk his reputation in a bid to expand the scope of the brass band trombone as a solo instrument.

He succeeds splendidly.  

All four of the Concertos are given outstanding performances, enhanced by the extra colours, timbres and shades that a top quality military band can bring out under some sympathetic direction. That direction also allows the soloist to explore those very same areas of the instrument as the usual monochrome accompaniment of the brass band is replaced by a richer, yet subtler sound palette of the wind ensemble, which on this occasion is cleverly controlled throughout in dynamic by the MD, Major Calum Gray.

The soloist is therefore never swamped by the same tone colours that invariably occur in the brass band, and it allows Brett Baker to make subtle changes of nuance, style, timbre and tessitura texture which enhance the performances and show a great deal of his mastery of the soloist craft.

The works themselves cover from the pens of composers who cover three centuries: Gordon Jacob born in the tail end of Victorian Britain in 1895; Derek Bourgeois born in War torn London in 1941 and Marc Owen (born in 1956) and Ivor Hodgson (born in 1959). The latter three are all alive and kicking, and most importantly, composing in the 21st Century. Each has a distinctive individual style, but each is linked musically by their modernist outlook on form and structure. The music is open and transparent, yet challenges the listener to reflect on its musical architecture – it is immensely detailed writing.

The Jacob ‘Concerto for Trombone' is the most readily identifiable, written as it was for Denis Wick and performed over the years by many leading trombone exponents. It is though a piece that remains fresh and interesting exactly 50 years after it was written, and the main reason for that here is that Brett Baker allows the music to flow in an almost unconscious stream of lyricism. It is a lovely performance.

The Bourgeois ‘Sonata for Trombone and Wind Band' was written initially as a solo piece with piano accompaniment, but Brett Baker asked the composer to rescore it for brass band, which he successfully did in 2000 and it was subsequently brilliantly played by the Vienna Philharmonic's Ian Bousefield with the YBS Band on the ‘Bourgeois in Brass' CD. 

At the same time however, the composer also rescored it for Wind Band, and in this form Brett Baker gives an equally brilliant performance; capturing the thrill and brio of the opening movement through to the playfulness of the second, the lyric singing of the third and the ferocious brilliance of the closing section.  

The third Concerto comes from the pen of Ivor Hodgson and his ‘Trombone Concerto' written initially for orchestral accompaniment, then brass band and finally wind band.  It is perhaps the most contrasting in style and colour of all four works on show with a lovely central section of relaxed almost jazz inspired coolness that is allowed to develop it the final section before a fast and furious climax reiterates thematic material used in the opening movement. It is the most ‘modern' sounding of the three, but in a way that is almost the most ‘classical' in feel – a wonderful juxtaposition that the soloist revels in. 

Finally, ‘Mask' – ‘Concerto for Trombone and Wind Band' by Marc Owen.  The kernel of the thematic material comes from a 19th century writer called Jean Paul, in which he describes a masked ball. This inspiration is explored by the composer throughout the work, through the uneven waltz of the opening section, the unfulfilled love theme of the second, and an almost chamber like feel of the third which ends in a climactic flourish.

It is a work of dark hues, dislocated themes and meanings. Nothing is quite what it seems at times (rather like the wearing of a mask to cover true identity) as thematic material is heard in varying forms and structures, some of which develop further, some that do not, like musical red herrings.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but when you do it is a work of stature and purpose, and all the more enjoyable for the degree of technical facility and musical breadth imposed by the soloist.  

Congratulations go to Brett Baker once more for taking a calculated risk with this release and giving the listener an unique opportunity to enjoy a CD of contemporary solo works, well produced and delivered and performed with real meaningful artistic merit. Where next for Mr Baker we wonder? Wherever it is, it will be well worth listening out for.

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