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CD Review | 140 | Cory Band

A Celebration of the Cory Band’s 140 Years of Musical Excellence


To celebrate their 140th anniversary, the Cory Band’s new CD, simply titled: 140, commemorates key milestones in the band’s history with some of the most memorable music, performed to the dizzyingly high standards we expect from the Cory Band. With a polished look, in-depth and well-written programme notes and absolutely outstanding playing - oh boy, does it impress!


From Humble Beginnings to World Famous

Like many bands across the UK, the story of the Cory Band originates from the mining industry. The hands that helped to fuel the industrial revolution through labouring in collieries also held the instruments that shaped our vibrant, historic musical community. In 1884, the Ton Temperance Band, based in the mining village of Ton Pentre, filled the leisure time of its miners; a well established distraction that kept them away from more roguish pastimes. 


The band’s performance at the opening of a nearby library caught the attention of Sir Clifford Cory, who owned many of the area's collieries. Notably impressed, Sir Clifford offered to support the band by paying for a professional conductor and in return for his sponsorship, the band adopted his family’s name to become the Cory Workmen’s Band. 


Over the course of 140 years, the village band would evolve (with a few name changes) to become one of the world’s most famous brass bands with a plethora of accolades, a loyal fanbase of thousands and some of the best musicians in the world playing within their ranks.


First Impressions

When it comes to brass band CD covers, there’s been a lot to be desired over the years. From instruments such as trumpets, french horns and even saxophones being featured on the cover to artwork that looks as if it has been created in Microsoft Paint - they don’t always reflect the excellent work concealed within the recording. However, I appreciate this isn’t always easy with funding, resource etc. As I work in marketing, it’s been great to see bands investing time into their branding, social media presence etc. and the Cory Band have made great waves with their marketing and branding efforts over the last few years. 


So, it was no great surprise, but lovely to see when the CD landed on my doorstep that its design was impressive. Designed by Andrew Wainwright, the cover depicts a Welsh Dragon standing proudly behind the number 140 cut out of the iconic red jackets and gold braid that make up the band’s uniform. It’s the very depiction of pride and celebration. 


The programme notes, collated and presented with style by Philip Harper, tell the story of the Cory Band, its achievements and offer well-summarised insights into the chosen works and their link with the band’s heritage. 


All in all, it’s a smartly-presented offering that beautifully represents the high-quality recording that lies beneath the cover. 


Track-by-Track

The CD is like a six course tasting menu of the best of traditional and contemporary brass writing, with 6 lengthy works, spanning 10 tracks - equating to around an hour’s worth of music. Each track highlights a particular milestone in the band’s career, opening with a newly commissioned work to celebrate 140 years and several offerings that celebrate the band’s many achievements. 


Track 1: Soaring the Heights by Christopher Bond

The band commissioned this piece from their composer-in-residence, Christopher Bond, to commemorate both the band’s 140th anniversary and fifty years since their first national championship win in 1974. Soaring the Heights is a dramatic opener that shows off the band’s huge sound and technical prowess with star-studded solo lines and all the panache and descriptive writing of a John Williams theme. 


What a piece to start the show - it’s a fantastic teaser of the talent you’re about to experience. A tantalising musical hors d'oeuvre, if you will. 


Track 2: Fantasy for Brass Band by Malcolm Arnold


Written for the 1974 National Brass Band Championships, Fantasy for Brass Band, is a fantastic example of outstanding writing for the medium. It provides a challenge for the band whilst offering an enjoyable listening experience for the audience. With its musically-descriptive moods and memorable melodies, it's a firm favourite of many banders. 


Arnold’s work earned its place in this recording due to the band’s win at the 1974 contest, marking their first National Final trophy - the first of many throughout the band’s history. 


Opening with an upstanding fanfare and featuring the majesty, pomp and ceremony befitting of an entrance of a Bridgerton character, this 10-minute work moves through a variety moods from the regal Prelude to a jaunty Dance and through dark, brooding moments in the Elegy. It’s in this section that the band’s emotive musicality is demonstrated and soloists are showcased, with a melancholic, but beautiful solo cornet line. We’re then thrown into an energetic Scherzo featuring technical moments around the stand and powerful trombones. Before we have time to catch our breath, a recapitulation of the opening fanfare and jaunty melody heard earlier in the piece takes us into the downhill march of a postlude to a rousing finish. 


Track 3: Contest Music by Wilfred Heaton

Considered a key piece of brass band repertoire, Wilfred Heaton’s Contest Music, has lived up to its name and has been chosen for many set work and own-choice contests over the years. Originally composed in 1973, it was overlooked for nine years until the 1982 National Finals when it was first chosen as a set work for a contest. Again, Cory took the title, which was the first in three consecutive wins for the band at this contest. 


Contest Music is split into three very different movements. 


The first, written in sonata form, is big and bold with an impactful opening that demands attention from the first note. It moves through luxurious melodic moments with wave-like dynamic changes that ebb and flow. It’s a challenge, especially for cornets, but delivered with technical precision and effortless musicality with the dynamic and musical range of the band fully demonstrated. It’s theatrical from the start with relentless energy, a great trombone solo line and bags of style from the first beat of the rousing opening to the cheeky, staccato semi-quaver ‘wink’ of a cornet solo to bring the first movement to a close. 


A dark, haunting second movement takes over, completely shifting the mood. It’s akin to the soundtrack of a black and white horror movie with wailing solo lines and thinly scored ensemble. From the atmospheric flugel solo lines to the infamously difficult top C# for principal cornet - this is a masterclass in slow melody playing (and having nerves of steel) for sure. 


As we pick our jaws up off the floor following that incredible second movement, we’re into the rhythmic opening of the third movement. Written in Rondo form, this movement is packed with drama. It reminds me of the finale from an old Hollywood film, like Elizabeth Taylor’s,Cleopatra, or Charlton Heston’s, Ben-hur - exotic locations, glitzy costumes, ornate, gold sets. Again the huge sound the band is known for is demonstrated here - simply, class.


Track 4: Ballet for Band: Joseph Horowitz

The year is 1983 and Joseph Horowitz’ Ballet for Band is the set work for that year’s National Finals - the second consecutive year that Cory took the title. 


It’s a unique work that the composer created without disclosing the story or characters involved in his imaginary ‘ballet’, leaving the audience to create their own storylines and cast. It’s a work packed with character and colour. I love this piece, as I get the image of a beautiful, dream-like dance sequence choreographed by Gene Kelly, like something out of An American in Paris


A beautiful flugel solo line, delivered by Helen Williams, is the standout moment within this piece for me, it’s just absolutely beautiful. The commitment to pulling out the individual characters within this piece with their descriptive motifs and styles paints a vivid picture for the listener - a testament to the respectfully creative interpretation of the band’s MD, Philip Harper. 


Track 5: Dances and Arias

The penultimate piece on the CD is the work that provided the band with their third consecutive National Finals title in 1984 - the band’s centenary year. Edward Gregson is a master composer for the brass band movement. Dances and Arias almost acts as a sequel to his 1977 work, Connotations (another well-known and beloved piece) with the main theme of Connotations quoted within a tuba solo in the middle of the piece. The work consists of three fast-paced dances and two atmospheric arias. 


The soloists stand out beautifully within their respective arias, particularly in the cornet and tuba solos in the first and the euphonium and flugel in the second. Another feature of this piece that I adore is its use of percussion - whether they’re creating drama with a formidable thump of timpani or adding a delicate twinkling of glockenspiel in the softer moments of the piece, it's the percussion section who provide the energy that fuels this piece and gives it life. It’s an exciting listen from start to finish. 


Track 6: The Year of the Dragon

Potentially the most famous work associated with the Cory Band, Philip Sparke’s ‘The Year of the Dragon’ has been appearing quite a bit on the blog this year! Written to celebrate the band’s centenary in 1984 it is a piece that has (quite rightly) achieved iconic status. It’s a vibrant work consisting of three movements: a driving Toccata; a lush, warm Interlude and a virtuosic Finale. This is a technically and musically perfect presentation of Sparke’s colourful and energetic writing. 


The trombone solo in the second movement, performed by guest soloist, Brett Baker, is just simply spellbinding and the vivacity of the final movement is quite extraordinary. Those who have played this piece will know how notoriously technical the last movement is, but Cory make it sound effortless with bags of musicality and relentless rhythm. It’s so outrageously good that I’m torn between being inspired to pick my instrument up to practice and locking it away though fear of never mastering my instrument as effectively as the musicians who make up this immensely talented ensemble. 


Final Thoughts

It’s safe to say that the Cory Band have succeeded in creating a fitting musical celebration of their rich history and many accolades. The choice of repertoire illustrates the band’s story beautifully with thoughtful reading and interpretation from Philip Harper. The band has never sounded better with incredible soloists and a bold yet balanced and controlled ensemble. 


This CD allows the listener to take a stroll through the history of one of the UK’s most iconic brass bands, accompanied by some of the most fantastic music our community has produced, performed by some of the finest brass musicians in the country - who could ask for more? Bravo to all involved - here’s to the next 140 years!


140 by the Cory Band and Philip Harper is available now to buy, stream and download via World of Brass:


Huge thanks to Ali Woodman, The Cory Band and World of Brass for reaching out to the blog about this fantastic recording - congratulations to all involved. 



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