I must admit that Bach through Brass, as this concert was entitled, filled me with a certain amount of trepidation. Bach, on instruments for which the music in the programme was not designed, on instruments which were not even around in Bach’s time (at least not in their modern-day form), did not sound immediately appealing; nevertheless, something drew me in, and I was pleasantly surprised.

© Onyx Brass
© Onyx Brass

This most unusual of programmes was the brainchild of Onyx Brass, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. As explained in the concert, the idea of a brass quintet as a legitimate form of ensemble was only seriously picked up in the 1950s, so the repertoire has been somewhat scarce. Over the last two decades, Onyx has picked up the trail blazed by the pioneering Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, commissioning over 100 new works from such names as Judith Bingham and John Tavener, and pushing forward the reputation of the brass quintet as a form of ensemble for serious chamber music.

A programme comprising only Bach arranged for brass might, as the quintet itself recognised, be quite an intense affair. Mixing in arrangements by a diverse range of other composers, plus one particularly surprising item, was therefore a clever move. Opening the concert with Shostakovich’s Fugue in G, Op. 87 no. 3 (Shostakovich reputedly having memorised Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by the age of 15) made for a bright, bold introduction to this concert, and I was surprised by how well it worked as an arrangement of a piece originally written for piano. The homogeneity of the instruments’ sounds provided a coherence that would perhaps not be heard in other types of ensemble.

Bach’s “Great” Fugue in G, BWV 541 and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 worked even better – the differences in sound between the instruments served to voice lines that would be played on the various manuals, and pedals, of the organ. The tuba was particularly effective in this regard. The seemingly impossible flourishes in the Toccata were very impressive indeed, and the subject of the ensuing fugue was initially shared seamlesly between the two trumpets before being picked up by the other instruments.

Less effective, I felt, were the fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Arranging four-part fugues for a quintet was always going to be a challenge (the two five-part fugues in the book were not on the programme); although Onyx played faultlessly and with consummate musicianship, and whilst it was an interesting exercise to arrange these fugues for brass quintet, it felt jarring to see the musicians taking a break every now and again simply because there were not enough parts to go round. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, arranged by the ensemble’s trombonist, Amos Miller, felt surreal, though it was a highly skilled arrangement, even if undertaken (in his own words) “after a few pints”!

The brass quintet, as a relative newcomer in the world of chamber music, has meant that many pieces have had to be arranged; few pieces have been written specifically for such groups. Onyx evidently sees its being as an opportunity to fill this hole in the musical market, and the concert also gave the audience the opportunity to hear just two of the many compositions it has commissioned. The first, the world première of Concertino by Jacques Cohen, was a thrilling and articulate showcase of Onyx’s musical capabilities, with a mixture of conventional harmony and more offbeat writing providing the piece with a very distinct voice. The second, Still Life by Joe Duddell, was Bach-inspired in terms of its contrapuntal writing and voicing each part distinctly (I’m sure I heard the opening of the E major fugue from Book 2 creep in, too!). It allowed the group to demonstrate its technical prowess, with effects such as hocketing. A surprise item came in the form of Timothy Jackson’s Anything But, a humorous arrangement of four poems, including Spike Milligan’s Teeth (involving the rhythmic clattering of the ensemble members’ teeth) and Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs Darwin, in which the ensemble became unnervingly realistic-sounding apes. Needless to say, it went down very well with the audience, and it was good to see professional musicians being less than serious.

Whatever might be said about the merits of transcribing or arranging J.S. Bach’s music for unusual ensembles, Onyx Brass showed that it could be done musically and, above all, entertainingly. The concert never promised or intended high-brow music, but the moments of virtuosity, superb ensemble playing, and humour made for an excellent evening.

****1