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Brass Too
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Gadfly Suite, Op. 97a (1955) (arr. Steven Verhaert) [13:59]
Detlev GLANERT (b. 1960)
Concertgeblaas (2012) [3:50]
Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)
Fanfares liturgiques, from Don Juan de Mañara (1947) [18:20]
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
María de Buenos Aires (1968) (suite arr. Steven Verhelst) [10:53]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Konzertmusik, Op. 50 (1930) [16:08]
Brass of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Ivan Meylemans
Brass and Strings of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 2011-14
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet included
RCO LIVE RCO14010 SACD [63:12]

There are few more thrilling noises than that of a brass/wind band in full cry. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing two memorable examples of the breed: a high-res download of John Pickard’s virtuosic Eden and Gaia Symphony (review) and a high-tingle-factor Blu-ray Audio disc from 2L entitled La voie triomphale. The prowess of those two ensembles – the Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag and The Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces respectively – is beyond question; indeed, they take the genre way beyond its somewhat anorakish following and give it the serious status it so richly deserves.

This enterprising album – a follow-up to Brass (RCO Live RCO 07002) – showcases the Concertgebouw’s peerless brass and percussion sections, not to mention their formidable strings in Hindemith’s Konzertmusik. It’s a well-chosen programme, beginning with an arrangement of four numbers from Shostakovich’s Gadfly Suite by Steven Verhaert; the latter is also a trumpet teacher and player with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. In the liner-notes Verhaert says the selection is designed to offer maximum contrast and variety.

Does it succeed? Emphatically, yes. The sheer weight and superior blend of these Dutch players is a wonder to behold. However, all that technique doesn’t count for much unless it’s firmly focused on musical values; happily this artful arrangement ensures those elements are always paramount. The Barrel Organ Waltz is a case in point; lightly scored and delectably played it’s a nimble number that highlights the knife-edge articulation of these players. As for the Keystone-Kops-like Galop it rollicks with the best of them; the yearning Romance is nicely done and the timps and bass drum add martial splendour to the Finale.

Just as impressive as the playing is the full-blooded and very well balanced recording. The temptation with ensembles and repertoire such as this must be to go for a crude ‘hi-fi spectacular’; that’s certainly not the case here, for all the pleasure and excitement comes from hearing these instruments in their pure, unforced state. The result is uncannily close to the delicious frisson and bodily impact one feels on hearing these instruments live, and that’s a remarkable achievement. Next up is Concertgeblaas, Detlev Glanert’s punny little interlude for 12 brass instruments and percussion. Premiered by this group in 2012, the work’s blend of asperity, rhythmic verve and big-band pizzazz is a delight from start to finish.

I first encountered the Corsican composer Henri Tomasi’s Fanfares liturgiques, culled from his radio-play-turned-opera Don Juan de Mañara, on La voie triomphale. The music, which depicts a religious festival in Seville, begins with the heraldic Annonciation, which soon modulates into something rather more sombre. The musical fabric is plainly dyed, the weave simple, but the bright threads of Evangile add colour to this solemn processional. Here and in the quirky Apocalypse the agility of these players is astonishing, and the dark-hued Procession du Vendredi-Saint exudes a pleasing pliancy throughout. The quieter passages are eloquently voiced, and the potentially brazen climax is tastefully done.

Good taste and good judgment are the watchwords here, even when the music invites the players to excess. That’s certainly true of the composer/arranger/trombone player Steven Verhelst’s take on Astor Piazzolla’s tango operita, María de Buenos Aires. This suite was suggested by the RCO’s principal trombonist Jörgen van Rijen, who plays a key role in the piece. Interestingly two trumpets, with and without sneering mutes, mimic the bandoneón, a concertina-like instrument used in tango ensembles. However, it’s the rich, in-your-boots sound of the trombone that really draws the ear. Not only that, the slink and slide of this seductive music is nicely sistained.

This is one of those rare collections that you can listen to in one sitting, such is the level of variety and interest on show. Moreover, there’s a real sense of fun here, and that’s readily communicated to the receptive listener. These players – the bedrock of one of the world’s great Mahler orchestras – wear their virtuosity so lightly, and that’s an added bonus. The album ends with a live account of Hindemith’s Op. 50 Konzertmusik, conducted by Kurt Masur. This is a big-boned performance whose bold brass chords invariably bring to mind the composer’s Mathis der Maler symphony. As before the sound is exemplary.

This is a thoroughly entertaining release that’s prompted me to seek out the first one in the series. Brass playing does not come much better than this, and the Polyhymnia team have done the music proud. Also, I’m pleased to see the brass and percussion players credited so prominently in the well-designed, easy-on-the-eye liner-notes.

What a blast; not to be missed.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei