In Residence James MORRISON (b. 1962)
Stift Melk Fanfare [3:42] Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
March from The Love for Three Oranges [1:34]
Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 & 2 [10:36] Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde [6:27] Georges BIZET (1838-1875) Excerpts from Carmen Suites 1 & 2 [13:03] Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Excerpts from West Side Story Suite
James Morrison (piccolo trumpet)
European Brass Ensemble/Thomas Clamor
rec. September/October 2015, Musikbildungszentrum Südwestfalen, Bad Fredeburg, Germany
Booklet notes in English and German GENUIN GEN16427 [58:20]
The liner notes announce this as the recording debut of the European Brass Ensemble (EBE), which was formed in 2010, and comprises musicians from “more than 24 nations”, “coming together from all over Europe”. It may seem a touch pedantic, but I counted 14 nationalities making up the EBE for this CD, including players from Japan, the United States and Venezuela. Australia is also there, and given its recent Eurovision Song Contest inclusion, the musical meaning of ‘Europe’ seems rather broader than its geographical one!
The EBE was partly the brainchild of conductor Thomas Clamor, following his experience in South America where he founded the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble. Clamor’s success with that group has been splendidly documented in the EuroArts DVD of their 2007 Berlin concert. The EBE’s ‘home’ is the grandly picturesque Melk Abbey in Lower Austria, a photograph of which adorns the CD cover. I assume from its makeup that the EBE’s members also pursue careers elsewhere and only assemble as the EBE for scheduled engagements. Perhaps this as well explains why this debut recording was so long in coming.
The programme opens with the Stift Melk Fanfare, composed and dedicated to the EBE and its meeting place by Australian trumpet virtuoso James Morrison. Those familiar with Morrison will be aware not only of his supreme musical gifts, but of his boundless energy and enterprise – one of those people I personally find exhausting just watching or reading about! The liner notes extol his myriad achievements, citing his typical response of “this is just the warm up”. Morrison is not new to formal composition, or indeed the very kind of piece he's written for this CD – he also composed and performed the fanfare for the 2000 Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony in Sydney. The Stift Melk Fanfare is conventional, tonal and a little derivative, but very nicely crafted. I could hear the ghost of Aaron Copland in the chorales, and a hint of John Williams in the more martial moments. When Morrison enters incandescently on piccolo trumpet, my immediate thought was ‘Scriabin at the Movies’. I really loved the piece, and hope it gets a wider audience than might just be drawn to this CD. Re-work it into a trumpet concerto, perhaps?
The rest of the programme is relatively standard fare; excerpts from popular classics arranged for brass band, or rather perhaps those excerpts that are more amenable to brass band realisation. Most daring, say, is Steven Verhaert’s arrangement for the EBE of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, given its World Premiere Recording here (along with the James Morrison fanfare). For me it works, just, but I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought of a lesser ensemble than the EBE attempting it – all those exposed high trumpets emulating the original’s massed-string ecstasy. Choosing this example though rather sums up the whole recital: music-making of great skill and flair, sometimes living on the edge. The energy and drive are palpable, the precision at times breathtaking, and the control of tempo and dynamics something to marvel at. I found the West Side Story excerpts tremendous fun, made more so by having recently watched DVDs of the 1961 movie and the making of Bernstein’s own 1984 soundtrack recording (review). In the latter I was struck by Lenny’s concern that his score might be dated – well, fat chance of that, if the EBE has anything to do with it!
Undoubtedly the EBE is a crack ensemble, with much to enjoy throughout this CD, and plaudits of course to Thomas Clamor. I can’t, however, avoid a couple of minor reservations. The first is musical, and perhaps a consequence of the EBE’s itinerant makeup. I had the feeling at times of a band of soloists rather than an organic whole. Lacking for me was that sense of fine tuning, particularly in blend and tonal signature, that’s found in other elite brass ensembles,
and presumably comes from long and frequent association. My second reservation is with the recording, and more particularly the recording venue. While nothing is amiss in the balance and basic truthfulness of the sound, the acoustic is on the lively side and what I would term ‘closed’ – I felt less involved than I should be, more an observer in the auditorium doorway than occupying the best seat in the house. I found on this occasion that headphone listening worked best.
Overall, this is an auspicious recording debut by the European Brass Ensemble, directed by their inspirational co-founder Thomas Clamor. While, as I’ve suggested, they may still be in their ‘character-building’ phase, there is much to relish on the current CD, and to look forward to in their future ventures. For me, James Morrison’s introductory ‘here we are’ piece for the ensemble, albeit brief, is the enduring highlight.