Quintet for Brass, Op. 73 (1961)
Sir Malcolm’s Quintet for Brass remains one of the most widely played chamber works. It is one of the absolute classics of the genre, and established the instrumentation two trumpets, French horn, trombone and tube as the standard. The writing for brass is idiomatic yet ultimately challenging. There is always an element of danger in Sir Malcolm’s brass writing, and this, to those who know him well, echoes certain traits in his own character! The writing for tuba is especially ahead of its time, and at the time it was written would have been within the grasp of very few players in the world. The work was written for the New York Brass Quintet, the group which at that time was laying down the standard for the rest of the world to emulate, and the work had immediate impact and success.
I remember very early and rudimentary read-throughs of this new avant-garde work with pals in the National Youth Orchestra, and Ernest Hall shaking his head at some of the hoops his former trumpet pupil, who had crossed the tracks to composing, was putting us through. The work is serious and substantial. It is perfect chamber music and wonderfully rewarding to play. The first movement pits a duet of trumpets who gallivant around like a pair of otters in the water, against a more sober trio of horn, trombone and tuba, who sound like three wise monkeys commenting on foolish behaviour. However, it is not long before they decide to join in the fun themselves! The second movements inhabits that area of bleak cold-war atmosphere more commonly associated with Shostakovich, and reminds one of the sincere depth of expression of much of Malcolm’s music. We are only a couple of steps away from the abyss. However the second movement resolves into an air of semi-tranquility, and the last movement quickly dispels any lingering atmosphere of tragedy with immediate and brilliant sunshine. Every instrument is given the chance to show off its virtuosic prowess in a challenging and exuberant rondo.
© John Wallace