According to Chamber Music New Zealand's publicity, Septura, the ensemble currently on a national tour, comprises "seven beautiful British blokes bringing back brass".

That's a bold claim. Did brass actually need resuscitating?

"I think as a serious medium, in some ways it did," says the group's co-artistic director, trombonist Matthew Knight, deftly sidestepping the question of whether he considers himself a beautiful bloke.

"Brass chamber music hasn't really been taken seriously. Since the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble [which folded in the mid-1980s], there hasn't been a group that's captured the imagination of the concert-going public, so it felt like it was ripe for a revival."


Knight is not talking about brass bands, which tend to play lighter music. Knight is not the slightest bit sniffy about brass bands – "it's terrific training and probably the best way to hone your technique and stamina" – but he says Septura, which features three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba, wants to elevate the brass septet to the status of other classical chamber ensembles.

"We want to put brass on a par with something like the string quartet and try to convince audiences we can play profound music and hopefully give people fascinating experiences."

It's an ambitious aim, not least because of the amount of music written for brass septet. String quartets have 250 years of repertoire to draw on; brass septets have none. Septura's solution has been to commission new pieces and for Knight and co-artistic director Simon Cox to frenziedly transcribe a bunch of existing ones.

Through transcriptions, Septura seeks to build what Knight calls an "imagined history of brass", a solid body of major works that can stand on their own as music written specifically for brass instruments even though they weren't.

"We don't want them to sound like arrangements," he says. "We want them to sound like they could have been written for brass septet."

Some of the transcriptions feel intuitively right: the trumpety parps of Gabrieli; Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece that in composer Ravel's orchestration already opens with a brass fanfare and which Septura brings to New Zealand.

But even seemingly obvious music can be difficult to rework for brass. Knight's transcription of Lagrime di San Pietro (St Peter's Tears), a collection of songs by Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus, is a case in point. The original is written for seven voices, in three sets of seven short pieces; perfect fodder for seven beautiful British blokes, surely?

"With choral pieces, so much of the expression is in the words, in the articulation and in the consonants and the vowel sounds and all that kind of stuff," sighs Knight. "It took me an absolute age to do that one because I went through painstakingly trying to capture all the articulations, all of the different note shapes singers would use, some of the vowel sounds, things like that. The sheet music is absolutely littered with markings."


Elsewhere among Septura's arrangements there are genuine surprises, including an unexpectedly successful version of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet.

"String players, when they first hear it, pretty much hate it," admits Knight, cheerfully. "That's something we get quite often; when players of a specific instrument who know the originals well listen to our versions, it's strange for them. But that gets to the root of the point: we're not trying to imitate the originals, we're trying to bring something new."

As the repertoire increases, so does the number of ensembles following in Septura's wake. That was always the group's intention.

"It's not just about our own group," Knight says. "We're trying to create a new medium for brass chamber music, and a lot of septets have sprung up, which is gratifying."

Septura's proselytising is supported by a strong educational arm. While here the group has a four-day residency at the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts with masterclasses, panel discussions and coaching sessions.

Meanwhile, its NZ concerts run from the aforementioned Mussorgsky through Rachmaninov and Gershwin, to Debussy and Ravel. Again, not what you'd expect from brass instruments.

"We get that a lot and it's something we like to hear," says Knight. "I hope people find what we do interesting and moving, and not necessarily what they expect. And if they forget we're playing brass instruments at all, that'd be the very best thing."

What: Septura national tour for Chamber Music New Zealand
Where & when: countrywide from April 23. Auckland concert May 1, see for details.