> Stockholm Chamber Brass Now [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anders HILLBORG (b.1954) Brass Quintet (1998)
Eino TAMBERG (b.1930) Music for Five op.86 (1992)
Per MÅRTENSSON (b.1967) I-Ching Variations (1998-9) for brass quintet and live electronics
Poul RUDERS (b.1949) Break Dance (1984) for piano and brass quintet
Luciano BERIO (b.1925) Call (1985)
Joakim AGNAS (b.1969) Tango (1996)
Yong-Won SUNG (b.1977) Pandragon (2000)
Fredrik HÖGBERG (b.1972) Melancholy Tango (2000) for five brass players and their voices
Stockholm Chamber Brass, Per Mårtensson, electronics, Frederik Ullén, piano
Recorded January 2001 at Danderyd Grammar School, Sweden
BIS-CD-1213 [62:53]


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The first track on this disc contains the most remarkable new sound I’ve heard from an instrumental ensemble for a very long time. Anders Hillborg, in his Brass Quintet of 1998, asks the players to play ‘back to front’, that is to imitate the sound of a recording being played backwards. This effect is carried off with almost incredible skill by the Stockholm Chamber Brass, for whom the work, along with most of the music on this disc, was written.

Hillborg’s piece is atmospheric and entertaining. The very opening may bring police sirens to mind, with its minor thirds passing rapidly from instrument to instrument, and this interval becomes an important element in the quintet, giving the whole work a playful feeling. This is further supported by other elements such as the ticking repeated notes, the perky fanfares, and of course the ‘back-to-front’ music.

The Estonian composer Eino Tamberg is represented by a very different, though equally impressive piece. Music for Five is a rather uneasy work, beginning with static chords that remind one of Stravinsky (in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments for example). This is the longest and most complex work on the disc, and it develops with scurrying, furtive music alternating with moments of an almost sentimental sweetness. The variety of styles on this CD is remarkable, and the next piece, Per Mårtensson’s I-Ching Variations, combines the brass instruments with ‘live’ electronics in a highly effective way. The sense of space and perspective is wonderful, and the recording has enhanced this, allowing the brass players momentarily to sound from afar off, then to be suddenly closer again.

Poul Ruders, the Danish composer, has one of the most distinctive voices amongst today’s European composers, and he constantly explores those uncomfortable little places where different styles of music meet – though ‘crossover’ to me is far too glib a description for this quirky, elusive music. Break Dance is a clever title, for while the music evokes the explosive movements of break dancing, another meaning gradually emerges; the dancing rhythm of the music is ‘broken’, and struggles to achieve any kind of sustained rhythmic cohesion throughout the duration of the piece, some seven and a half minutes. Disconcerting, but intriguing and very cunning.

Berio is the most celebrated composer on the disc, and his Call of 1985 is a typically enigmatic utterance – pithy but endlessly resourceful, using not only the textural possibilities of the brass instruments, but the players voices directed through their instruments, a subtle and unearthly effect.

Berio’s little piece is not the only on on the disc to require the players to use their voices. Joakim Agnas’ Tango, which starts with what I take to be a verbal ‘count-in’, develops into a grotesque but attractive version of the moody dance. It’s an unassuming enough piece, but not without its delights; the use of the tuba in particular is superbly effective, and Jonas Bylund produces a splendidly decadent trombone solo.

The disc is completed by two pieces by very young composers; Yong-Won Sung is in his mid twenties, and was born in South Korea, moving to Germany in 1993. His Pandragon – the title refers to a ‘magical realm where high technology and nature coexist’ according to the composer – is another highly-strung, fragmented piece, in which different types of tone production are experimented with, such as pitch distortion and wide vibrato. There is also much use of multiple tonguing in the climactic central section. An impressive piece, particularly from so young a writer.

Fredrik Högberg’s Melancholy Tango is the third work to employ a vocal element, and does so extensively and imaginatively. The players have to sing, echoing each other’s notes, and it’s a good job the members of SCB are such efficient vocalists – I’m quite sure that not all brass groups would manage so well! And of course having a woman in their midst (trumpeter Tora Thorslund) does help for the higher sung notes. This is a most attractive piece, though its relationship to the tango style is far less overt than that of Agnas’ piece.

As you may have noticed, I’ve said more about the music itself than the performances. That’s because the SCB is such an awesomely talented and accomplished group. Not only their technique, but all aspects of their ensemble playing make these extremely difficult modern works sound effortless, thus directing your attention to their quality and expressiveness rather than their uncompromising modernity. It’s also a worthwhile reminder of how much mileage there still is in ‘conventional’ musical instruments, especially when used as unconventionally and imaginatively as here. A superb issue, and I’ll be looking out keenly for the group’s next venture.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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