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Psalm - Contemporary British Trumpet Concertos

Simon Desbruslais (trumpet), Orchestra of the Swan
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2012
Civil Hall, Straford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom
Produced by Raphaël Mouterde
Engineered by Mike Cox & Brett Cox
Release date: November 2014
Total duration: 66 minutes 38 seconds

Simon Desbruslais leads these premiere recordings of works by some of the UK’s leading composers. Seeking to expand the repertoire for trumpet and orchestra, he was inspired after performing Robert Saxton’s Psalm to help commission the three remaining works on this programme: Saxton’s Shakespeare Scenes, Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace and John McCabe’s La primavera.


'A hugely enjoyable disc, strongly recommended' (Gramophone)

'A bravely programme disc, and one which highlight's Simon Desbruslais's ruby tonal quality and brightly communicative playing' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Yorkshire-born operatic soprano Sarah Fox makes her solo recording debut with songs by Broadway songwriting legend Cole Porter. Accompanied by the versatile pianist, composer and conductor James Burton, she lends a classic feel to all the favourite, including 'I've Got You Under My Skin', 'I Get a Kick Out Of You' and 'Anything Goes'' (The Lady)
Skyspace (2012) Deborah Pritchard
In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes: 'Colour is a power that directly influences the soul. Colour is the key-board, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul'.

His words could not resonate any more succinctly than with my own experiences of colour, since I am highly sensitive to both colour and light, and have a synaesthetic approach to composition with much of my music written in response to visual artworks.

Skyspace draws its inspiration from the kaleidoscopic ‘celestial vaulting’ experienced within a James Turrell skyspace, where temporal and methodical exposure to shifting sky colours through an aperture engages the observer with the rotation of the earth, making both colour and light almost palpable. Whilst the perceived sky colour has provided the stimulus for my work, it was not my intention to portray physical colour, rather the imagined colour of the mind’s eye—with the music being composed and constructed in the manner of colours, through the delicate layering and juxtaposition of various textures and timbres. Skyspace is constructed in seven miniatures, with each one depicting a varying sky colour:

Aurum and Aurum Resonance are both inspired by the warm, golden colours of the descending sun, whilst Light Iridescent and Dark Iridescent portray the flickering light found before dawn and dusk respectively. Opaque and Opaque Resonance are based on the darkness of the night, whilst Cerulean is a reflection on the serene, blue sky of the day. The musical material of the piccolo trumpet and ensemble resonate in unison as the work opens, pull gradually apart towards the centre and find resolution as the work concludes.

La Primavera (2012) John McCabe (b. 1939)
The Trumpet Concerto La Primavera is so-called because the initial impulse for the piece came from considering two aspects of the coming of Spring: the exuberance and vitality of burgeoning new growth, and the flowering (literally!) of the new or refreshed life as it expands. So the opening quick movement’s music is quicksilver and mercurial, with much celebratory material as well as overlapping patterns and a gradual increase in density—though there are also moments of chamber-music writing as well. In the central slow section which follows without a break, there is at first an almost static mood, inner life staying below the surface, until at length a complex theme rises, initially, from cellos and basses and eventually provides a full string texture.

This is linked to the final quick section by a short 'quasi cadenza' for the trumpet solo and bongos, and in the finale the music is rhythmic, once again accumulating through the juxtaposition of various overlapping strands. At the close, the trumpet solo has the last word (or the last note).

Two aspects of the instrumentation should be mentioned. One is that for the slow section, the soloist uses a Flugelhorn, that beautiful instrument beloved of brass bands and treated symphonically with great respect and sympathy by Vaughan Williams—it was also the instrument employed by Miles Davis, another musician whom I greatly admire. In the slow section, the music pays what I hope is a discreet homage to his jazz style. The other point concerns the percussion, which in a note in the score is requested to be placed, if possible, at the front of the platform next to, or near, the trumpet soloist, since thepercussion part is at times in the nature of an obbligato.

The concerto was commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan, and is dedicated to Simon Desbruslais, who initiated the composition, and to Robert Saxton and Tessa Cahill, whose encouragement provided the starting-point for this composition. The first performance was given by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods, in the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon on 15 June 2012.

Psalm: A Song of Ascents (1992) & Shakespeare Scenes (2013) Robert Saxton (b. 1953)
Twenty-one years separate Psalm (1992) and Shakespeare Scenes (2013) and, in retrospect, I think they may be considered to be ‘markers’ in my work, both being written for solo trumpet and small ensemble (mixed in the case of Psalm, strings in that of Shakespeare Scenes). Each work was commissioned, Psalm by the London Sinfonietta for John Wallace as part of the orchestra’s 25th anniversary concert series, Shakespeare Scenes by Simon Desbruslais for a concert with the Orchestra of the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon.

The title Psalm refers obliquely to the collection of Hymns/Songs in the Hebrew Bible (150 in the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition); in Biblical times, these were frequently instrumentally accompanied and range from songs of despair to those of spiritual fulfilment and praise. The ancient natural trumpet (Shofar or ram’s horn) and silver/metal trumpets are referred to in various books of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and were allotted a variety of (liturgical) functions. The title is used for my piece to illustrate a spiritual journey through various states, the trumpet, as a Priest-like Master of Ceremonies, initiating the musical voyage accompanied by tubular bells, its role that of both announcement and warning (as in time of conflict). As the ensemble gradually joins, the character of the music evolves from lyrical and mourning, via a state of growing intensity and drama to a trumpet cadenza which heralds the final dance of praise. After the tutti climax, the music cadences twice, firstly into a slow, sustained postlude which itself resolves onto (rather than into) A major, whose Dominant note, E, began the work. At the close, both solo and ensemble trumpets play the Lydian fourth above A, the latter echoing the soloist; when the latter has ceased, the note is therefore heard continuing in the temporal domain and, in terms of harmony, the Lydian fourth over A divides the octave symmetrically, both parameters symbolically illustrate the circular (and therefore, eternal) nature of the journey.

Whereas Psalm (the earlier ‘marker’) emanates from my Jewish background, Shakespeare Scenes illustrates my English up-bringing (my paternal grandmother was a ‘convert of convenience’ from Anglican Christianity to Judaism) and education and, indeed, my profound love of, and respect for, the English empirical tradition (in the arts, philosophy, and science) and, in particular, its visionary qualities as manifest in, for example, late Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, Bunyan, Blake, late Turner, Stanley Spencer, Vaughan Williams, Tippett and the finest (vocal) music of my teacher, Elisabeth Lutyens. When Simon Desbruslais suggested that I write him a companion piece to Psalm, knowing that he would premiere it in Stratford and being inspired by the extraordinary range, technical brilliance and quality of his playing, it was at once clear that I would pay tribute simultaneously to both Simon and Shakespeare, and that the work would be a counter-pole to the earlier one. In place of Psalm’s continuous, evolving structure, Shakespeare Scenes consists of five character pieces, unified by means of the musical letters of Shakespeare’s name acting as pitch centres across the cycle. During the period between Psalm and Shakespeare Scenes, my musical grammar/syntax has (consciously) become more intentionally integrated regarding modal/tonal root movement than previously and each of the five pieces in the later work is a closed ‘cadential’ structure, with one exception. The first and last pieces act as prelude and postlude, the first, The Magic Wood, referring to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in particular the world of the fairies and Puck’s line: ‘I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes’. The second piece, Falstaff, is a miniature tone poem in which we hear Falstaff awakening from a drunken stupor (the musical commentary in the strings being ironic in its pseudo-academic, fugal manner), his defeat/humiliation at Gad’s Hill and his death. The Storm on the Heath is a depiction of the physical and psychological states of King Lear and his Fool in the driving rain and storm, the trumpet representing themad monarch, the solo violin his increasingly deranged jester; at the close, the conflict unresolved tonally, the final gesture being at odds with this. Masque makes general reference to the Jacobean tradition, masques occurring in several Shakespeare plays eg: (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest); the solo trumpet announces the masque, continuing with a Pavane and Galliard, accompanied in lutelike fashion by pizzicato cellos; there are no quotations of earlier music, as I wanted the challenge of writing stylistically and deriving all material from this. The remainder of the string ensemble represents those participating in the masque and the audience, playing lively canonic/imitative music reminiscent of that peculiarly English tradition of ‘dislocated’ dance rhythms. With the closing piece, The Magic Island (counter-pole to The Magic Wood) we are on Prospero’s island in The Tempest; Prospero's spell is broken and Caliban (solo viola) regains his freedom. The music is a Chaconne, with a modulating pitch centre for each repetition of the Ground, the trumpet (Prospero) and the ensemble (the world, symbolically) are reconciled in the E major resolution.

Signum Classics © 2014

From its inception, this recording has been entwined with my graduate studies. Fresh from the Royal College of Music in 2007, I matriculated at the University of Oxford to begin a doctoral thesis in musicology. During this time I encountered the music of Oxford professor Robert Saxton, who, it transpired, had written a trumpet concerto Psalm: A Song of Ascents in 1992. At this formative stage of my career, I was determined that I wanted to combine solo performance with academia, and the opportunity to bring British music to life—by performing marginalised works and commissioning new ones—was strongly appealing.

It was following a performance of Psalm in 2008, with the Oxford Sinfonietta, that I first approached Robert with the idea to write a new trumpet concerto. Why stop at one, I thought? Robert’s trumpet writing and musical language immediately appealed to me. It had such raw energy, complexity and yet cohesive structural identity. As a trumpeter, it gave me everything that I was looking for in a concerto, including technical challenges in generous measure. The following events surpassed my every expectation: three new stunning trumpet concertos written for me by three of Britain’s finest composers.

Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace is one of the first modern concertos to be conceived solely for piccolo trumpet. Though a popular instrument, it has thus far been surprisingly restricted to concerto performances of earlier baroque concertos and transcriptions. This is despite its wonderful treatment in the symphony orchestra: Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony or Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, for example. Deborah’s music maintains vivid and direct relationships with visual and conceptual art, placing her work within a fascinating, rich interdisciplinary context. John McCabe’s La Primavera is a tour de force of orchestral writing and thematic development, including one of the most beautiful and expressive flugelhorn parts in the repertoire. The combination of spring themes and pictorial references to sporting events (it was written in 2012, year of the London Olympics) makes for a truly effervescent musical experience. Finally, Robert’s Shakespeare Scenes places the trumpeter within an unusually explicit, dramatic role: as Puck, Falstaff, King Lear and Prospero. The opportunity to engage with these characters is a delight which is certain to reward trumpeters for countless generations.

The trumpet is ideally suited to the concerto. Indeed, many orchestral works exploit its ability to dominate an entire body of musicians, such as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony or Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Though it has much unexplored potential in the field of chamber music, it is most dominant in the concerto. Unfortunately, we are missing at least one hundred years of concertos, from the Hummel trumpet concerto of 1803, to the French trumpet concertos of the early twentieth century. This recording represents the beginning, not the end, of my trumpet mission: to expand the repertoire and make amends for those lost years. I hope that it offers an insight into the wonderful array of contemporary music making in the United Kingdom, and a window onto some of the myriad possibilities the trumpet can offer. Welcome to the first chapter of our journey together.

Simon Desbruslais © 2014

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