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Stefan Schulz - Berlin Recital
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Vier
ernste Gesänge [15:21]
Stjepan ULEK (1914-1986)
Sonata 'Vox Gabrieli [7:40]
Alexei LEBEDEV (1924-1983) Concerto
(b.1961) subZERO (version for bass trombone, piano,
percussion and violin) [19:12]
Jan SANDSTRÖM (b.1954) Song
to Lotta [4:24]
Stefan Schulz (bass trombone)
Tomoko Sawano (piano); Aleksander Ivic (violin); Maria Schneider
(marimba); Julian Sulzberger (percussion)
rec. live, Chamber Music Hall, Philharmonie, Berlin, 14 January
2008. Stereo. DDD.
The idea of the bass trombone as a solo instrument is relatively new, but listening to recordings from the world's most skilled players it is difficult to understand why it has taken so long to be recognised. Up until now, about the only bass trombone players to have recorded solo albums have been Doug Yeo of the Boston Symphony and Ben van Dijk of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The instrument lends itself to big, round sounds, but also to very lyrical playing styles. Yeo and van Dijk have both demonstrated that these properties can make for satisfying solo performances, and any suspicion that low brass instruments are too cumbersome for virtuosic displays have been comprehensively allayed by both men's recordings.
And now we have Stefan Schulz, bass trombone player with the Berlin Philharmonic and as a solo player easily in the same class as his two distinguished colleagues. It is a very different job putting on a solo recital to performing at the bottom of a orchestral brass section, so Schulz's impressive CV, which also includes stints at the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Bayreuther Festspiele, is not necessarily any guarantee that this project will work. But it does, and it does magnificently.
Brass playing, and indeed brass instrument making, is one of the few fields of music where significant regional variations still apply, and no more so than in the east of Germany. While American performance and instrument construction styles have increasingly gained dominance in other countries around the world, the eastern Germans have stuck with distinctively German trends. So, you would expect a bass trombone in Berlin to have a slightly narrower bore than an American one, a proportionately larger bell, and possibly even a bell garland. These instruments impart a brassier tone, not quite as round in the fortissimos, but more distinctive and more varied than from an American instrument.
Schulz studied both in Berlin and in Chicago, and his playing demonstrates the best of both worlds. It doesn't say in the liner, but I wonder if his studies in Chicago were under Charles Vernon, bass trombonist with the Chicago Symphony and another of the instrument's most legendary names. Whether that is the case or not, Schultz often produces a big, round "American" sound when required. But from the German side, he is also able to produce a throaty quality, in both quiet and loud dynamics. He occasionally employs a very subtle vibrato - from the throat, I think - which again is impressively smooth in any dynamic or register, even on pedal notes.
The repertoire choices here are excellent. I'm particularly impressed that Schultz has avoided that huge body of sonatas and concertos, mostly by American composers of the second half of the 20th century, which are based on a series of boring, anodyne tunes, and which are more or less ubiquitous these days on wind instrument recital discs. The bass trombone repertoire is as blighted with these as that of any other instrument, so it is great not to find any here. Instead, the recital begins with some Brahms Lieder, showing off the bass trombone's rich baritonal qualities. Croatian composer Stjepan ulek and Russian Alexei Lebedev provide more traditional fare, but both works more than justify their presence on purely musical grounds, rather than merely their convenient choice of solo instrument. The Lebedev Concerto in particular is a tightly argued work, elaborating its themes in complex and always interesting ways.
Daniel Schnyder's subZERO forms an impressive conclusion to the recital. It is a jazzy concertante work, in this arrangement with accompanying group of piano, percussion and violin. Given the significance of jazz to the trombone's musical persona - and that of the bass trombone just as much as the tenor - it seems fitting to devote so much of the recital to such a jazzy work. There are all sorts of extended techniques here from the trombone, many of which are astutely complemented by the percussion writing, which is imaginative and, just as importantly, restrained to an accompanying role. After a minute's applause, which is given its own track, the disc concludes with a short work from Jan Sandström, whose relationship with the trombone was sealed through his various collaborations with Christian Lindberg. As Schultz demonstrates, you don't have to sound like Lindberg to play it effectively.
All round this is an impressive disc. It is surely a must for anybody with an interest in the bass trombone. Improbable as it may seem, it would also be good if the disc could also find an audience outside of that tiny group. Whatever sort of instrument Stefan Schulz plays, his solo work deserves to be heard purely for its musical qualities. He is a major talent and I look forward to his next recital recording.