Review of High Bridge Brass (2019)

High Bridge Brass Album

High Bridge Brass, High Bridge Brass (Summit Records, 2019). For further information, click here.

This new recording of two brass quintets (Op. 5 and Op. 11) by Russian composer Victor Ewald and a brass sextet (Op. 30) by German composer Oskar Böhme shows off the advantages of playing these early works on their intended instruments.

The liner notes of the CD give not only biographical information on the six musicians involved (Christopher Martin, Mark Ridenour, Nathan Miller, Hiram Diaz, Christopher Tiedeman, and guest cornet soloist Matthew Harding), but also a brief account of their relationship with each other. They characterize their coming together for the project as close friends, after helping Ridenour install a new roof on his hay barn. In much the same way as Americans would have done a hundred fifty years prior, the group brought their instruments and played for pleasure after their construction job was over.

The group continued to play after finishing the roof (now formalized as the “High Bridge Brass”) and set out to record Ewald and Böhme chamber works in their original instrumentation. They cite the fact that the shared warm timbre of the cornets, alto horn, euphonium, and tuba creates a seamless, five-octave whole, which is lost when replaced with the more diverse-timbred trumpets and the F horn.

The liner notes state the album’s thesis: “When heard in their original instrumentation and with world-class performers, the brilliance of these pieces comes to light—they are not merely historical precursors to the modern brass quintet, they are richly scored masterworks filled with lush harmonies, vibrant rhythms, and expressive melodies.” Their main claim is that modern instruments were not upgrades to those used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The music, when played on the original instruments, reveals the attention that both composers gave to timbre and harmony. Indeed, when the instruments are so clearly similar in sound as this, the harmonies among them become more pronounced, since dissimilar timbres do not obscure them.

This album begins with these five instruments playing two multi-movement works. Then, they perform the Böhme Sextet with two trumpets and solo cornet, which highlights just how different the sound of a trumpet is than the cornet. Many well-educated listeners have difficulty hearing the difference between a trumpet and a cornet—for those people, this album leaves a stark and visceral impression of the difference. Böhme’s approach to the language of the cornet as opposed to the trumpet is striking, as the trumpets use plenty of fanfare-like motives alongside the cornet’s more lyrical and voice-like melodies. Both Böhme and the High Bridge Brass use this sextet to cause the discerning ear to hear the two kinds of treble brass instruments as cousins, rather than siblings.

While one often hears cornets and alto horns in brass bands, it is rare to hear them in a chamber ensemble like this. The album demonstrates not only the beauty of those instruments working together to sound like one ultra-expressive instrument, but the great skill of the players in staying in very sharp tune with each other while moving together as one.

-- Andrew Owen