Ercole Nisini and Instrumenta Musica The Historical Trombone


The Renaissance Trombone, Querstand. Recorded October 2010.
Ercole Nisini, trombone; Uta Schmidt, recorder; Zita Mikijanska, organ/virginal; Monika Fischaleck, dulcian; Nora Thiele, historical drums

The Baroque Trombone, Querstand. Recorded October 2011
Ercole Nisini, trombone; Monika Fischaleck, baroque bassoon; Rebecca Maurer, harpsichord. With Jiri Sycha, violin; Amrai Groβe, violin; Angelika Grünert, viola.

Website for the project:

Aficionados of early-music trombone playing have a lot to be happy about these days. Performers such as Wim Becu, Daniel Lassale, Michel Becquet, Adam Woolf, Jorgen Van Rijen, and others have raised the level and visibility of the instrument as a solo instrument within Renaissance and Baroque music. Two recent important entries onto the scene are the first CDs from a larger project titled The Historical Trombone by Ercole Nisini and Instrumenta Musica. The CDs, logically titled The Renaissance Trombone and The Baroque Trombone, highlight Nisini as a soloist within chamber music settings that feature historical instruments. While the entire project follows the traditional music history periodization and while musically the two CD’s share a common approach to phrasing and sound, these two CD’s differ in their overall approach to establishing the trombone as a solo instrument.

The Renaissance Trombone emphasizes the Renaissance tradition of composed improvisations and elaborations on well known melodies. The composers that Nisini draws on for this CD—Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, and Diego Ortiz—all published instruction manuals for instrumentalists who wanted to learn to improvise in this style. As teachers, they provided written examples using some of the most popular polyphonic late Renaissance pieces by composers such as Orlando di Lasso and Palestrina. Nisini particularly draws on the concept of “diminution” and on a style called “alla bastarda” in which an original polyphonic composition is transformed into a single melodic line. (While this is a familiar style to fans of Renaissance music, for those seeking further explanation, it is probably better to go the New Grove’s Dictionary than to the somewhat confusing English translations offered in the CD liner notes.) Although many of these works would have been (and still are) performed on the viola da gamba, they were also played on the trombone; the liner notes quote Michael Praetorius on 16th century trombonists who “thanks to assiduous practice are so advanced in playing trombone” that they can play these difficult pieces.

Throughout the entire Renaissance CD, Nisini plays on a G tenor trombone (463 Hz) built by Ewald and Bernhard Meinl. This horn has a soft dark baritone sound which lends itself well to the music on the CD, in its soloistic presence, its overall blending quality, and its subtle suggestion of Renaissance difference. Although these pieces are florid and difficult, Nisini’s playing is always controlled and is presented with a kind of humility that emphasizes the interplay between trombone, crumhorn, bassoon, and percussion, and allows the other instruments and tones to shine. The challenge for the trombonist in this style of music, much like a trombonist in a jazz combo, is not just to keep up with, but also to equal the varieties of articulation that other more facile instruments can achieve. Nisini, for the most part, achieves this, even as his fellow musicians, particularly recorder player Uta Schmidt, subtly craft some complex and highly ornate lines.

Six of the fifteen tracks on the CD are Recercada from Diego Ortiz's Trattado de glosas (1553). These tracks contain some of the most melodic playing on the CD, and make excellent use of the mellow sound of Nisini’s instrument. Familiar to fans of Renaissance music, these pieces were written to be played by bowed viol over a bass melody (here played beautifully on the dulcian by Monika Fishalack). Nisini’s interpretations of the Ortiz pieces show a solid sense of phrasing, impressive legato playing, and a delicate counterpoint with keyboard, dulcian, and percussion. Long a staple of early music string players, these Ortiz Recercadas have become popular pieces recently among early music low brass players, for example Daniel Lassale on trombone or even—amazingly—Volny Hostiou in a recent recording on serpent. Nisini’s tempos are a little slower and his playing more understated than many other interpretations of these pieces, but they are musical and elegantly played. Other tracks include a lovely Bovicelli diminution on a Palestrina madrigal. In this case, the piece was written for voice, and Nisini employs his smooth legato style to create long effective melodic lines.
While much of the music on The Renaissance Trombone is familiar only to fans or players of early music, The Baroque Trombone, although it claims in the liner notes to illuminate a “dark” period of time for the trombone by “proposing a Baroque repertoire for the instrument as though the trombone had inspired these great composers” actually presents familiar music and composers, both to listeners and to trombone players. Many of these pieces—the Telemann and Marcello Sonatas, for example—are staples of the high school and undergraduate trombone player’s education, and music that most trombone players have in their library. Again, as on the Renaissance CD, Nisini’s tone and style blends and interacts well with the excellent ensemble playing. All of these pieces—sonatas, a concerto, and a ricercar—are major works of Baroque music and Nisini, bassoonist Monika Fishaleck, and harpsichordist Rebecca Maurer have just the right musical touch: light and delicate on the Allegros and just the right amount of gravitas on the Adagios.
Although Nisini’s technique is impressive, these CD’s are more significant for their musical intelligence and ensemble balance than for jaw-dropping virtuosity. And while these CDs represent an important contribution within the field of historic brass, they are also good material to present to non-musician friends who need to be convinced of the trombone’s solo potential within early music.

-- Gregory Erickson, New York University