Why don’t brass ensembles have a regular presence in the classical concert scene, in comparison to string ensembles or at least woodwind ensembles? Is it because of the lack of original repertoire for such a group? Many years ago, there was the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble – subsequently reformed as London Brass – but who are the new names in this genre now?

Septura © Bethany Clarke
Septura
© Bethany Clarke

Well there’s Septura, a group that consists of London’s leading brass players, including principals from London’s major orchestras. Uniquely, they are a brass septet, a brand new type of brass ensemble consisting of three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba – traditionally, the brass quintet or a ten-piece ensemble have been the usual configurations – so all their repertoire are specially arranged, mainly by their artistic directors Simon Cox (trumpet) and Matthew Knight (trombone). This season they’ve launched their debut series “Kleptomania” at St John's Smith Square.

At Thursday’s concert, the last of the four-concert series, Septura focused on the early 20th century, in particular on the transatlantic friendship between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin. They first met when Gershwin travelled to Paris in 1926 and later he invited Ravel to a tour of the USA. The programme was framed by two popular works, Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with arrangements of Fauré and Gershwin songs in between.

Ma mère l’Oye was performed in an elegant arrangement by Matthew Knight (from the original suite for piano duet). In the opening Pavane, the melody was evenly distributed between the three trumpets and two trombones, while the bass trombone and tuba took the bass. The Beauty and the Beast movement on the other hand, featured Huw Morgan on the clarion-sounding E flat trumpet as the Beauty and Peter Smith on the tuba representing as the beast.

Septura is a highly democratic group and everyone gets a chance to shine as a soloist. In the arrangement of Fauré’s Six Mélodies, also by Knight, each piece featured a different player: the famous long-line melody of Après un rêve (often played by cellists) was taken by trombonist Matthew Gee, and Le Papillon et la fleur featured Simon Cox who portrayed the flower charmingly on the mellow flugelhorn.

If you thought an ensemble of trumpets and trombones would be limited in tonal colour, you could not be more wrong. It was fascinating to watch and listen to how the players would change their timbre with the help of several types of mutes, which they hung on their music stands. There were some I’d never seen used in regular orchestral repertoire and my favourite was the “felt crown” mute on the trumpet, used in the beautiful blues lullaby in Gershwin’s Three Preludes (arranged from the piano) as well as in the blues tune in An American in Paris, that made the sound soft and seductive.

As one would expect, the all-Gershwin second half had a more upbeat and jazzy feel, with plenty of feel-good factor. In the selection from his American Songbook, the players took turns in introducing the pieces from the stage, giving little pointers and insight into the pieces, and it was fascinating to learn that Ravel had heard some of these songs performed by Gershwin himself during his American visit. Familiar tunes such as The Man I Love, S’Wonderful as well as numbers from the musical Lady Be Good were performed with virtuosity and groove, prompting spontaneous applause like in a jazz concert. They rounded up the set with a foot-tapping I got Rhythm.

The real tour de force was their arrangement of An American in Paris complete with the obligatory taxi horn (played simultaneously with the trumpet by Simon Cox!). Whereas all the other pieces were miniatures, this work had a symphonic grandeur with a more complex texture and richer sonority. The catchy opening themes were thrown around the group with panache, and trumpet Alan Thomas played the recurring nostalgic blues theme with lyricism and finesse. At the end all the themes came together and the ensemble created an exuberant and symphonic grand finale. Overall, the concert was entertaining and informal, yet ambitious in repertoire and programming and it was ensemble playing of the highest quality. I heartily recommend Septura to anyone who likes chamber music, even if he/she is not a brass fan in particular. I have certainly been converted to the unique sound world of the brass septet.

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