CD: The Sun is free to flow with the Sea

Onyx Brass
NMC Recordings

On the face of it, it seems hard to believe that the brass quintet, Onyx Brass, has been around for three decades now, but as founding trombonist, Amos Miller, comments in the press release for this most enterprising of anniversary discs: ‘we might have been slimmer with more hair back then, but I can still recognise ourselves as true to the idealistic spirit we had in 1993’. 

That ever-present core musical beliefs and philosophy of Onyx remain as artistically and intrinsically intact today, as they did 30 years ago, a fact borne out to compelling effect in this celebratory recording. It is a disc that neatly encapsulates all that Onyx Brass has stood for over three decades of championing both new music and the medium of the brass quintet as a potent force in chamber music, with the clear empathy the players feel for the music coursing through every bar. 

In true ‘Onyx fashion’, the composers represented demonstrate a wide range of musical expression and stylistic breadth, ranging from familiar names such Mark-Anthony Turnage and Errollyn Wallen, and of particular note to brass band fans, Simon Dobson, to younger up-and-coming creative artists. 

Roxanna Panufnik’s fleeting introductory piece for solo trumpet, Fanfare for Broadway Tower, weaves declamatory statements with passages of more florid material and has its origins in a lockdown project that saw trumpeter, Alan Thomas, commission several composers to write short one-minute works playable in locations that he could either cycle or run to. 

Zoe Martlew’s Kiss Kiss, a seven-minute work that in almost Berio-like fashion intersperses extended instrumental techniques with vocal expostulations and exhalations of air in varying forms, succeeds in finding that rare formula of combining wit and humour with music that also challenges the players on every technical level. 

ONYX30 by Mark-Anthony Turnage, a composer that has surely been long-overlooked in writing for brass band, is a four-movement suite that alternates an angular, at times jagged opening fanfare with lush, beautifully-tinted blues- infused harmonies in Chorale and Blues typical of the composer in their ingenuity, contrasting skillfully with a further, more restrained take on the traditional fanfare. 

In marked contrast to the edgy, technically demanding astringency of Errollyn Wallen’s ONYX, a brief work that ultimately finds peace in its closing bars, Music for my Stolen Breath by Yshani Perinpanayagam is a deeply personal and, at times, anguished response to being the subject of work-related racial abuse, which uses as its basis breathing patterns experienced during mental trauma. 

New York’s grid-like architecture gives Charlotte Harding’s Rhombus its structural framework, with the music’s rhythmic constructions intertwined with what the composer describes as the stories of the people that populate the city’s streets. 

Meanwhile, Simon Dobson’s colourful and endlessly fascinating Brass Quintet No. 1 is an amalgam of influences from Steve Reich-like minimalist rhythmic patterns to the final ‘Fanfare and Adagio on a borrowed theme’, which seamlessly interweaves into the fabric of the music two themes from Malcolm Arnold’s early essay in brass quintet form. Again, the contrast with Bobbie-Jane Gardner’s Up on the Toes (the slippery stair dance) that follows Dobson’s work is typical of the kaleidoscopic influences permeating the music featured throughout the recording.

After the variety and, at times, pyrotechnical feats of performance that precede it, it is perhaps appropriate that the disc concludes in contemplative fashion with the uncluttered simplicity of Emily Hall’s response to Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Eternity. Its gentle, slowly ebbing phrases, beautifully enunciated on two flugel horns and French horn, offer three minutes of reflection on what has been 30 years of pioneering and enterprising musical spirit from this most engaging and creative of brass ensembles. 


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