Brass quintets are exuberant almost by definition, and Davies's certainly does not disappoint. It has, though, the rarer quality of being a consistent, gripping and fully developed work: a piece as substantial as one might expect a string quartet to be. There are three movements, of which the first is a romping Allegro with a slow introduction. Then comes a slow movement with vividly alive duetting from the trumpets, and the finale is again fast, except for a passage of questioning before the end.
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My Brass Quintet was written in September and October of 1981, to a commission from Rolf Smedvig and the Empire Brass Quintet, with funds from the Harvard Musical Association. It attempts to provide the repertory with a work of real chamber music, insofar as the players are involved in the intimate kind of music-making associated with a string quartet, requiring exactly the same kind of responsibility and musical intelligence. This goes beyond the obvious extreme virtuosity of playing – all of which makes this perhaps the most demanding brass quintet to date, bearing in mind that it requires over half-an-hour’s extreme concentration on the part of players and listeners alike.
There are three movements. In the first lurks the ghost of classical sonata form, complete with introduction – although this calm introduction is extended enough to be almost a movement apart, and contains the harmonic and meoldic seeds of everything to follow. The development, as in Schoenberg’s early Chamber Symphony, turns into a scherzo, which dissolves towards the end into ever more fragmented phrase-lengths and sparser polyphony, becoming entirely monodic just before the final recapitulatory cadence. The basic tonality of C, established at the outset, has dropped to A minor.
The second movement is slow, and is related to Haydn’s innovation of double-variation form – although here the second theme is subject to attack and disruption by elements intruding from the first, relating more closely to the sudden montage of fragmented and conflicting musical images in Mussorgsky, or even the progressive intercutting of shots in Eisenstein’s films.
The first theme is identical to that of the opening of the first movement, but harmonised more richly and pulling away from the A minor region. The second is underpinned by A’s over the whole register, pulling the harmony back. The first variation on the opening theme is characterised by slowly pulsating dyads on the two trumpets, while the first variation on the second is more extended and subject to violent A minor pulling interruptions from the trumpets.
The second variation of the opening theme adds horn filigree melismas and accompanying flourishes on the trumpets. Then the themes start to coalesce, with more soft trumpet pulsations, and the mood becomes ever more intense and inward. Just as the movement seems about to cadence in a high register in A major, the A tonality is undermined by a coda, preparing the harmonic ground for the finale.
The last movement is very fast and, after a rondo-like exposition. leads back to A minor in a long, relaxed figure with repeated dyads for two trumpets punctuated by silences, giving a moment of repose before a long solo horn D, crescendo from almost silence to fff, inaugurates a sequence of three short development sections, the second and third of which are signalled by their own similar crescendo on a two- or three-note chord. The ‘signposting’ three-note chord is extended to make a short, slow independent section, extended further still at the four-note crescendo chord signal after the third development.
Here one might expect the ‘big climax’. Instead, starting on a quiet G in the tuba, which prepares for the return to the C tonic of the first movement, there is a chorale-like recall of the first bars of the work, leading into a most virtuosic sequence of fanfares to mark the final cadence, to a high, held C plus D on the two trumpets.
Peter Maxwell Davies