Pioneering Ophicleide CD

Back from Oblivion; Nick Byrne, Ophicleide; David Miller, Piano. Melba Recordings MR 301111 Australia, Recorded at the Australian National Academy of Music (6-8 December 2006)

CD Contents:
Dagnelies: Fantasie Variée
Proctor: Adagio from Ophecleide Concerto
Demersseman: Introduction et Polonaise
Elgar: Romance
Kummer: Variations for Ophecleide
Rachmaninov: Vocalise
Handel: Oh Ruddier than the Cherry
Grieg: Ich Liebe Dich
Klosé: Air Varié
Piazzola: Oblivion

The "rare" Ophicleide is enjoying a renaissance. This is certainly proven by the release of Nick Byrne's wonderful CD. Nota bene: "From Oblivion" is the first commercially released solo recording ever made of this curious and evolutionary instrument! While it seems that the ophecleide could be considered an ancestor of the modern-day tuba, it actually was invented around 1817. So the ophecleide actually is more of kissing cousin to the tuba (Moritz' first tuba was patented in 1835, so was first constructed some years before). Or maybe ugly stepsister. It certainly looks "ancestral" as related to a tuba, appearing to echo the relationship between the keyed bugle and the valved cornet. Because the valved low brass instruments eventually proved to be a better design, many opheclides were soon relegated to storage closets -- except in the hands of only the most ardent fans and virtuosi. Its wider usage was only for a couple decades after 1820, and so maybe the real ophicleide "golden age" is happening right now, when we have an international community of ophicleidists (?), including several modern day virtuosi, such a Nick Byrne. Many of the original 19th-century instruments have been refurbished into playing condition, and some are even for sale in certain Parisian shops. There also are artisans are building new ones.

So, it is authentic for us to be hearing 19th-century romantic music played on this instrument. It is an object from the early part of that era and it played a part in initiating composers, conductors, and audiences to the possibility of a bass brass instrument with facility. Nick notes on his fine website: "Performers, such as English Virtuoso Samuel Hughes and the Royal Italian Opera's (Covent Garden) J.H. Guilmartin, continued to perform on the instrument late into the 1890's."

The name is derived from the Greek "ophis" (meaning serpent) and "kleis" (to cover). Having between 9 and 11 keys, and in a variety of sizes, from the alto (quinticlave) pitched in E-flat or F, to the contrabasses in E-flat or C, "ophicleide" can be considered a family of instruments.

If the ophicleide is a "period" instrument, that period embraces orchestral works of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Italian opera composers, and others. As a chamber instrument or military band instrument, it seems to have made brass chamber music more possible for the first time since sackbuts and cornettos were shelved. Both the orchestral works and the smaller ensembles are represented by some good examples in the CD catalogs. See Nick’s website (address below) for a very complete ophicleide discography.

Back from Oblivion is a first-class production, with gorgeous recording acoustics, and stylish and masterful playing by both Nick Byrne and pianist David Miller. The CD was produced with the support of the Melba Foundation, Australia Council, and arts agencies of the Australian government, allowing for a deluxe product in every respect. It is a pleasurable listening experience and the liner notes are excellent. His website www.ophicleide.com, is the primary destination for learning more about this instrument and its tradition. Nick plays on an 1830 Finke ophicleide in C, and an 1875 C model by Halévy, both, by the measure of this recording, perfectly restored.

The CD is not available on Amazon.com, but Nick suggests cduniverse.com in the U.S. and play.com or crotchet.co.uk in the U.K. and Europe. In Australasia, try melbarecordings.com.au. This is one CD to own and enjoy repeatedly. The first modern solo recording of the ophicleide didn't have to be this superb. We'll have to throw all our ophicleide jokes out.

--- Paul Niemisto

Buxtehude for Winds


Buxtehude & Co.; Caecilia-Concert; Fiona Russell, cornetto/cornettino; Adam Woolf, tenor trombone; Wouter Verschuren, dulcian; Kathryn Cok, harpsichord/organ; Annabelle Ferdinand, violin. Challenge Records CC72179. Info: www.caecilia-concert.com Recorded November 2006.

Caecilia-Concert’s latest CD presents a program of 9 sonatas, a chaconne, and an aria by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and four of his illustrious contemporaries of the North German school: Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725); Matthias Weckmann (1619-1674); Dietrich Becker (1623-1671); and Johann Theile (1646-1724). The program represents a musical view of the 17th-century North German collegia musica and the Abendmusiken, which were special concerts presented for merchants, lawyers, and other successful members of society. Inherently secular in nature, this repertoire is highly virtuosic and presents many demands upon the performers. One such interesting challenge, as pointed out in the informative CD booklet, is the use of A# and Bb in the same piece representing two different pitches in the historic temperament. Members of this ensemble ably meet those challenges and more. Their expressive musical lines are perhaps slightly less over-the-top than some cornett and sackbut ensembles, and to my mind, this approach is more enjoyable. The fast-fingers, strong chops, flexible playing aspect of technique is at the top of the game. The performance is flawless. Fiona Russell, perhaps the finest cornett player of her generation, plays a John McCann treble cornett and a cornettino by Serge Delmas. Adam Woolf plays a tenor trombone by Ewald Meinl modeled after an original by Drewelwecz. For a glimpse into the sound-world of 17th-century North German instrumental music one couldn’t do better than this excellent recording.
--- Jeffrey Nussbaum

HMSC 12 Days of Christmas

Music for The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Nativity; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, 2007; Jeremy West, cornett and bagpipes; Jamie Savan, cornett; Adam Woolf, Abigail Newman, and Stephen Saunders sackbuts; Gary Cooper, organ, virginal, and harpsichord. SFZ Music # SFZ0307. Obtained from the group’s website, www.hmsc.co.uk

Just in time to celebrate its 25th year of existence, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts has released a new CD album of music for the Christmas season, titled Music for The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Nativity. This group of two cornetts, three sackbuts, and chamber organ often joins with other musicians; in this case they have added Stephen Henderson on percussion, Keith McGowan on bagpipes and recorder, and soprano Faye Newton.

Included here are selections in many musical styles, all originally used as part of the European Christmas season from the 12th through 17th centuries. The album begins with 10 tracks relating to the Nativity, followed by another 13 tracks of what the group calls its “whistle stop tour” of each of the 12 days of Christmas.

In the Nativity section, the first track is Anthony Holborne’s galliard As It Fell On a Holie Eve, followed by the visit of the angel to the Virgin Mary as illustrated by the sung Angelus ad Virginem and Jacob Obrecht’s Ave Maria Stella. The angel appears to the shepherds accompanied by an instrumental medley comprised of Holborne’s The Night Watch and Dowland’s A Shepherd in Shade, after which Newton sings one setting of Von Himmel Hoch, with the brass returning the favor with two more settings by Eccard and Schein. The birth pageant begins with Victoria’s Alma Redemptoris Mater à 5 plus soprano and Walther’s setting of Joseph lieber, Joseph mein. There follows a medley of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen in its version by Praetorius, the Melchior Velpius Canon à 4, and the traditional Coventry Carol. The set concludes with Victoria’s Quem vidistis pastores à 6 describing the arrival of the shepherds.

Reaching Christmastide, the selections follow the subjects of the titular song’s twelve gifts. Thomas Ravenscroft’s Hawking for the Partridge is an obvious choice, as is Morley’s Fantasia à 2 La Tortorella if you know that ‘tortorella’ is a little turtle dove. In the same vein the three French hens appear as ‘t Han en ‘t Henne Gekray à 3 and Le Ballet des Cocqs by Praetorius, and four calling birds are in the guise of Symphonia à 4 Supra la Cuc Cuc by Nicolaus a Kempis. At this point one can imagine a mental block worthy of Major General Stanley searching for a difficult rhyme as the group cogitates about a song to go with five gold rings …”Aha! I have it”… and a five-part canon (ahem, ‘round’) ushers forth in the form of Ravenscroft’s Two Rounds in Five Parts. Tripping along comes Lasso’s “Gyri gyri gaga gans” in Audite Nova, which at least has something to do with geese. At this point anyone having breath in them will see Gibbons's The Silver Swan coming a mile away, but sneaking in behind it is the unexpected Suono del Ballo de Cigni by Giacomo Spiardo. John Playford helpfully provides The Milke-maid’s Life and The Milkmaid’s Bob, but one has to perhaps play the track eight times to get the whole effect. Nine ladies dancing justifies Richard Allison’s The Lady Frances Sidney’s Almayne, and one good rationalization deserves another, so Farnaby’s The Lord Souches Maske follows; the energetic character of this piece along with the mirth inducing sound of the rhythmic rommel pot combine to affect some real leaping (but I’m not kidding, listen as the group cracks up at the end of this track…that’s one hilarious friction drum line). Enter the guest bagpiper to follow Morley’s Those That Want To My Pipes Sound with a suitable traditional Welsh folk tune Nos Galan (which provided the melody of today’s favorite "Deck the Hall With Boughs of Holly"), segueing into the closing Bransle l’Officiel of Thoinot Arbeau (which gave us "Ding Dong Merrily on High"), performed here with lots of percussion, although there are not 12 of them drumming.

This is a fine, and fun, addition to the early brass recording canon. The playing is expert and musical, varying from tear-inducing to energetic, and Faye Newton has a nice, clear, early-music type of voice which both blends with the brass, yet rises above them when needed. Of the group’s nearly 20 albums, this has quickly become one of my favorites.

--Paul Schmidt

Civil War Brass

Better Than Rations or Medicine. The Federal City Brass Band, dir. Jari Villanueva. Privately produced by JV Music.
Information: 124 Maiden Choice Lane, Baltimore, MD 21228; Email: federalcitybrassband@erols.com; Web: www.jvmusic.net/FCBB.html. Recorded April 21-23, 2005.

Eb cornet - R. L. Doucette, Don Johnson, Jeff Stockham
Bb cornet - Paul DeLuca, Jeb Hague
Eb alto - Ronald Friedman, J. V. Rogers
Bb tenor - Richard Bergren, Steve Gasiororowski, Andrew Gelfert
Bb baritone - Jared Denhard
Eb bass - John Bieniarz, Mark Elrod
Percussion - Garmen L. Bowers, Jr., Ted Dietz
Vocals - Heather Faust

Those who attended the 2005 HBS Early Brass Festival in Northfield, MN will certainly remember the wonderful performances of the Federal City Brass Band. They will also surely remember the blazing 100-degree days and watching the band members swelter in their authentic gray jean cloth uniforms of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band as they staged a "battle of the bands" with the 1st Brigade Band of Wisconsin. Watching those folks sweat buckets gave me cause to ask band member Mark Elrod why they don't get some lightweight cotton or synthetic band uniforms. Mark shook his head at my obviously naïve remark and set me straight. "You don't understand. In our various military recreation performances we play for the stitch counter." Stitch counters??!! What in the world are they? Mark continued to educate me and explained that these there people who could tell at a distance of 10 paces whether your uniform contained the right amount of stitches per square inch, thereby achieving the status of being sufficiently "authentic." This seemed to me to take the "A" word a bit too far but that is the degree in which this fine ensemble takes up the challenge of authentic performance practice, sweat and all!

This present recording includes, among other items, music from the band books of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band. Based on the existing repertoire and surviving documentation this band, which served the Confederate Army from 1862 until days before Lee's surrender at the end of the Civil War, the band must have been one spectacular musical outfit. The musicians were all Moravians from Salem, NC where the surviving books of the band are now housed. This recording includes music from those books along other music of the period. Jari Villanueva has also tastefully edited music that is known to have been performed by Civil War bands but now only survives in piano scores.

Claudio Grafulla (1810-1880) is represented twice on this program with George Hart's Quickstep and Captain Shepherd's Quickstep. The first piece contains a medley of tunes by Stephen Foster and the second is a flashy tour-de-force. Villanueva created a wonderful arrangement of Arthur Kennedy's Commencement Waltz, a lovely piece that captures the graceful and simple elegance of the music of this period. The Maryland Guard Galop gives the musicians a chance to demonstrate their fast and amazingly clean double tonguing. Arrangements of opera arias and choruses was an important part of brass band repertoire and the recording includes a glorious arrangement commissioned by General Kirkland for the 26th NC Regimental Band, working in many of Verdi's most famous tunes.

All instruments used on this CD (with the single exception of a drum) are originals dating to the mid 19th century, and the playing is uniformly fine. There are 21 short dance selections including quicksteps, waltzes, gallops, quadrilles, and polkas. Most of the works are typical of the period and genre, which is to say, ensemble music that is high on lyricism as well as fast flashy virtuosity. Don Johnson and Jeff Stockham deserve special note for their florid and beautiful playing but all the musicians perform wonderfully creating a solid sense of ensemble. All of the pieces, and indeed much of this repertoire, have several common qualities. There is a combination of exciting virtuoso writing with a lyrical aspect that almost magically conjures a sense of, for want of a better phrase, a more innocent time. The Federal City's latest CD is a fine example of this repertoire. Jari Villanueva and these fine musicians deserve great praise.

-- Jeffrey Nussbaum

Victorian Christmas

Victorian Christmas; Passion des Cuivres, 2006; Orfeo C 689 061 A.
Obtained from JPC Shallplatten, www.jpc.de (website in English), scheduled for wider distribution in the Fall of 2007.

For generations, brass playing has been an important part of musical life in Great Britain, with many of the advances in instrument development paralleling the popularity of the brass bands. Indeed, the popularity of brass ensemble music in Britain was such that for the first time rural and working class people had plenty of opportunities to hear high quality music making in their own communities. The brass quintet Passion des Cuivre (rhymes with 'peeve'), based in Berlin and including members from that city as well as from Dresden and London, was formed to revive the culture of 19th-century brass chamber music, especially that of the aforementioned tradition. Many HBS members will recall their fine performances at the Vintage Band Festival in Northfield, Minnesota in 2006. Using cornets in place of trumpets, a simple F horn, narrow-bore trombone and ophicleide, they perform both original works and arrangements of selections written for larger ensembles of the period. Their fine musicianship on period instruments won them the Nikolaus Harnoncourt Prize in 2005. This CD, given the alternate title Victorian Christmas for Brass, is the group's first commercial recording.

The performers on this CD are Robert Vanryne, Neil Brough and Amanda Pepping alternating on cornets, Steffan Launer on horn, Bernhard Meyer on trombone, Erhard Schwartz on ophicleide, and guest vocalist Constanze Backes, soprano. Adjunct performers include the bell ringing team at St. Andrew's Church, Sonning. All instruments used are period examples, with the exception of Schwartz's ophicleide, which is a modern reproduction.

The recording opens with melodic peals of church bells, segueing into Arthur Sullivan's Christmas Bells at Sea, a fitting selection for opening an album of Victorian Christmas music. This is followed by another Sullivan selection, "Hearken Unto Me, My People," an anthem that was originally for organ and choir but works nicely with the warm sounds of period brass. Next is the traditional 1849 carol "Once in Royal David's City", where the first verse is played here by solo cornet instead of the boy soprano often used in English Christmas services. Two more traditional songs follow, with "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" being given a familiar brass quintet treatment, and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" passing the melody to solo ophicleide.

Three baroque selections follow, the Sinfony (Overture) and "He Shall Feed His Flock" from Handel's Messiah, with Backes' clear soprano voice joining in on the latter. The ophicleide gets a virtuosic solo opportunity in the same composer's "O Ruddier Than the Cherry" from the dramatic opera Acis and Galatea. History's last great ophicleide virtuoso, Sam Hughes, took the bass aria written for the character Polyphemus and made the solo his own. Recalling the Hughes tradition of ophicleide artistry, Erhard Schwartz delivers a fine performance. Following are more traditional songs, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "Carol of the Bells." Henry Purcell's "Evening Hymn", "Now That the Sun Hath Veil'd His Light," is revived here in a gentle treatment by vocalist Backes.

Adophe Adam's beautiful "O Holy Night," also known as "Cantique de Noël," is here given a lush and moving treatment with the melody on horn until a cornet duet takes over. Next is Arthur Sullivan's setting of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," better known outside of England in its alternate setting by Richard Willis. Five more traditional carols follow, including "Joy to the World," "The Coventry Carol," "In the Bleak Midwinter," "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and "The Three Kings." Excerpted here from Sullivan's Christmas drawing-room extravaganza "The Miller and His Man" is the bumptious tune "Care is All Fiddle-De-Dee," wherein listeners are urged to throw caution to the winds and indulge the excesses of the festive season. The recording concludes with another version of Christmas Bells at Sea, this time with ophicleide solo, segueing into the closing peals of church bells.

This CD was nicely recorded by Bayerischen Rundfunk, in a space that gives a nice light ambience. The playing is up to the high standard set by other top brass quintets, and is a delight to listen to. As a recreation of Victorian brass playing, the performers have done a commendable job, with the less strident and warm sound of 19th Century brass complementing the material. This recording also presents a fine example of solo ophicleide playing, and indeed no other instrument takes as many solos. This is also an excellent and very enjoyable Christmas album in its own right. Highly recommended.

--Paul Schmidt

Australian Baroque Brass

Music of a Golden Age. Australian Baroque Brass, John Foster, Director. Tubicium Records TR761901.
Info: www.australianbaroquebrass.com. Recorded 2005 and 2006. Natural trumpets: John Foster, Martin Phillipson, David Musk, Peter Miller, Joshua Clarke, Yoram Levy, Matthew Manchester, Samantha Robinson, Julian Brun, Andrew Evans. Sackbuts: Scott Kinmont, Brett Favell, Warrick Tyrell, Nigel Crocker, Gregory Van der Struik. Classical flutes: Melissia Farrow, Mikaela Oberg. Baroque cello: Anthea Cottee. Timpani: Richard Miller. Percussion: John Douglas. Organ: David Drury.

The Australian Baroque Brass Ensemble was formed in 2003 under the direction of trumpet virtuoso John Foster. This recording offers a program of 15 pieces, the majority of which feature the trumpet ensemble, but it also includes repertoire featuring other instrumentations. The ensemble is solidly musical and performs with great enthusiasm and virtuosity. The well-known pieces that feature the trumpet ensemble include Monteverdi's Toccata from L'Orfeo, the Biber Sonata Sancti Polycarpi, and his Sonata á 7, C.P.E. Bach's Marche, the Aufzug aus Musikalische Schlittenfahrt by Leopold Mozart, Altenburg's Concerto á VII, and three anonymous fanfares. Involving other forces, the CD includes; Mozart's Divertimento No. 6, K. 188, Sonata for 4 trombones by Speer, the Aira Offen euch, ihr beiden Ohren from Cantata 175, and a lovely praeludium for organ by Buxtehude. John Foster covers most of the solo spots and performs with great clarity and precision. His performance on Scartatti's Mio tesoro per te moro is gorgeous and he matches the florid and brilliant singing of Anna Sandstrom with wonderful results. His use of ornamentation is also very effective.

The biography in the liner notes mentions Foster's impressive performance history as well as his involvement with Naumann trumpets. The instruments used are not mentioned but I gather they are vented trumpets. The notes also indicate that some ensemble members also play cornetti. Perhaps their next recording might feature some cornett repertoire. Still, this present recording does offer an enjoyable and wide ranging program of works that feature brass, from the wonderful "standards" to some less well-known but beautiful and beautifully played pieces.

-- Jeffrey Nussbaum

Christmas with the Serpent

Hark, Shepherds, Hark, The Madding Crowd, 2007; The Madding Crowd # TMC-002-CD. Obtained from the group’s website, (you may also email to cd@maddingcrowd.org).

The Madding Crowd is an English group that specializes in the research and performance of church and country music from Georgian times. Their performance focus is on authenticity, and as such their music embodies an immediacy and earthiness that takes the listener back in time. The sound has a bumptious, rural quality that specifically does not recall performances of polished professionals. In this case, this quality is a good thing.

This CD is a selection from the group’s Christmas repertoire. Historically, the holidays presented such groups a fine opportunity to make music in the church, in West Gallery tradition, and to make the rounds of the village, visiting every cottage to tell the good news in carols. Many of the selections recorded here are taken from an undated manuscript found by the group in a used bookshop, and their research has placed its contents in the vicinity of 1837 Dorset, and many of the carols found within are not known elsewhere.

The selections include "We Singers Make Bold" with its West Country tune, "Hark the Glad Sound" (ca. 1800), "Awake Ye Heavenly Choirs and Sing" (early 19th C), "The Cornish Seraphic Minstrels," "Great Was the Joy Displayed Abroad," the Charles Burney version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "Come Let Us All With Heart and Voice," "O May We All Rejoice," which at times seems almost Handelian, the mid-18th-century "Anthem for the Nativity St. Luke Chapter 2," "Angels From the Realms of Glory" in its Thomas Merritt setting, "Anthem for the Nativity," "When Jordan Hush’d His Waters Still" (ambitious for West Gallery), "Shepherds Rejoice," the lilting 6/8 "A Saviour Sinner," "Glad Tidings, Bright Angels," with its opening "symphony," the titular "Hark Shepherds Hark," "Arise and Hail," the tricky "Me Think I Hear a Soft Still Voice," the Victorian carol "Be Merry All," "Hark Those Hallelujahs Pealing," which spans from the Nativity to the Passion and Second Coming, and finally "While Shepherds Watch’d," here with a different tune setting for every verse, none of which are familiar today.

The Madding Crowd’s instrumental accompaniment consists of fiddles, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet and serpent. From an early brass standpoint, this album’s offering is limited to the participation of the serpent, played here quite capably by Peter Hackston. Happily, this proves to be a lot of serpent, often in prominent lines and sometimes taking the melody. I recommend this recording on the strength of its offbeat, authentic sound, unusual collection of carols, and strong serpent presence.

--Paul Schmidt