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LP review: Grimethorpe Special

Grimethorpe Colliery Band
Conductor: Elgar Howarth
Featuring: Besses o' th' Barn Band
Narrator: Valerie Solti
Decca Records: HEAD14

Isaac Newton had it right: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

His third law even applied to the selection of brass band test pieces in the 1970s. 

The response to the possibility of Wilfred Heaton’s ‘Contest Music’  being used at the 1973 National Finals was to bounce it so far into obscurity that it only turned up again in London five years later at the European Championships after coming to rest in the banding backwaters of Sweden.

And whilst the initial outpouring of opprobrium that greeted Elgar Howarth’s ‘Fireworks’  at the 1975 British Open may have initially been confined to the luddite traditionalists sat on the wooden benches of the King’s Hall (plus a few conductors), it also brought a recoil riposte that saw the contest filled with populist pot-boilers for the next four years.   

Newton would have had to come up with a completely new law to explain things if Hans Werner Henze’s ‘Ragtimes & Habaneras’, let alone Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Grimethorpe Aria’, had ever gone on to be picked after appearing on this remarkable 1976 recording.

Respected but not loved

Howarth remains the musician the brass band movement respected but never loved.

He opened a door to a new world of possibilities that it was only brave enough to peek into. It had little appetite to come knocking again.

As a result ‘Fireworks’  turned into the equivalent of Miss Haversham in ‘Great Expectations’ - jilted at the altar and left to ossify in the once glorious mansion of the composer’s own making; its sly, sardonic wit treated like old Christmas cracker jokes in the hands of conductors who could not see past mere caricature.  

There is little writing in the contesting canon to match its closing ‘fugue’; a glorious invention (played by the two bands here) underpinned by a seamless gear change halfway through that remains a moment of liquidity only the informed and truly respectful can capture.  

As a result ‘Fireworks’ turned into the equivalent of Miss Haversham in ‘Great Expectations’ - jilted at the altar and left to ossify in the once glorious mansion of the composer’s own making; its sly, sardonic wit treated like old Christmas cracker jokes in the hands of conductors who could not see past mere caricature.  

Ionizing overload

The same can be said of ‘Grimethorpe Aria’  - a work that still sends musical Geiger counters into ionizing overload. 

A bleak mood picture of pessimistic beauty, its cantilinear lines and dissonant harmonies form bridges between three sections that embrace melancholy as well as majesty - the violent climax ebbing away with a bubbling punctuation to close. 

The contrast with Henze’s ‘Ragtimes’  could not be starker - a work touched by a peculiar form of genius; 11 perfectly formed miniature ‘Cuban’ variants of whim and wicked inventiveness.  

It’s like finding yourself in a sweaty 1950s Havana bar drinking shot glasses of rum and chewing the fat with Kurt Weill, Mahler and Sigmund Romberg in tow with Ernest Hemingway.

It’s like finding yourself in a sweaty 1950s Havana bar drinking shot glasses of rum and chewing the fat with Kurt Weill, Mahler and Sigmund Romberg in tow with Ernest Hemingway.

Softly poetic

All this and there is Takemitsu’s sublime ‘Garden Rain’  - as softly poetic in its condensed form as Japanese Haiku verse – a juxtaposition of textured imagery in the mind’s eye.  

Howarth was bang on the money when he wrote in the sleeve notes that “several composers outside conservative circles have tackled the problem (of brass band repertoire) with great enthusiasm, enlivening and revitalising a repertoire which had become inbred and stale”.

He was one of them: So too, Birtwistle, Henze and Takemitsu. Today his words are almost prophetic.

And that is why ‘Grimethorpe Special’ remains such a landmark recording.  

Iwan Fox


Play list:

Side 1:
1. Fireworks (Elgar Howarth)*
Narrator: Valerie Solti
2. Garden Rain (Toru Takemitsu)

Side 2:
1. Grimethorpe Aria ( Harrison Birtwistle)*
2. Ragtimes & Habaneras (Hans Werner Henze)

*with Besses o’th’ Barn Band  

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