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Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies
Jared Stellmacher (organ)
Mark Sudelth (piano)
Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble/Stephen Squires
rec. Saint Michael the Archangel Catholic Church Wheaton Illinois USA 2013 (Sharpe, Saint-Saens), First United Church, Oak Park Illinois USA (remainder) 2013-14
MSR CLASSICS MS1598 [67:37]

The combination of the king of instruments with heraldic brass can often make for a thrilling disc especially when the more obvious repertoire choices are avoided. Particular favourite discs of mine are the wonderful Empire Brass playing Bach on EMI/Warner and a mixed (mainly French) recital on Telarc. Jostling these discs for sheer dynamism and adrenalin-fuelled music-making are a series from the Washington Symphonic Brass which includes remarkable transcriptions of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, Carmina Burana and possibly most sensationally and successfully of all, Nielsen's Third Symphony.

Alongside these stellar ensembles the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble is a fine but less remarkable group. In essence this is a standard brass quintet; two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba to which is added timpani/percussion and organ. The membership seems fairly fluid in that aside from the ever-present trumpets there are two horns, three trombones and three tubas credited for different tracks on the disc; the finale of the Saint-Saens seems to have been scored for a pair of tubas according to the personnel list.

Of greatest interest about this disc is that the group have commissioned works for this specific instrumental line-up. By some distance these new works are the most engaging on the disc. However the Brindisi from La Traviata is worth avoiding. It's not an interesting arrangement and is played in a manner, albeit a skilful one to remind one of all the jibes about Verdi being a composer of tunes for the bandstand. Likewise the Weinberger Prelude and fugue from Schwanda the bagpiper gets a strangely comfortable performance that removes nearly all its bravura and bravado. Last of the arrangements is the Adagio and Finale from the Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony. It's a logical choice for this instrumental grouping. The finale appears on the Washington Symphonic Brass disc "Burana in Brass" and in direct side-by-side comparison the Washington performance musically and in recording terms is much more viscerally engaging. That being said the Adagio works rather well in this Chicago performance with the long flowing first theme initially played very beautifully on flügelhorn, at a guess. However, the structure of the finale is tinkered with. The main opening section is played in full with a curious repeat at the beginning of the movement followed by a big cut to the final pages. Additionally, this is the one time I felt the otherwise well-managed technical aspect of the recording made an error of judgement. The arrangement includes a single pianist as well as the organ and this keyboard gets undue prominence in the instrumental mix, at times sounding louder than a heavily registered organ.

The founder and artistic director of the group is Rodney Holmes. Mr Holmes is a biology instructor and does not feature on this disc in any capacity except - one imagines - as guiding hand. On the web he lists his musical heroes as "Oh dear, this really dates me. Why don't we say Copland, Nielsen, Bernstein, and BS&T [Blood, Sweat & Tears I'm guessing??] .... and call it a day." Which I mention to give some idea of the music he commissions for the group: attractive not overly challenging contemporary music would be a fair description. The disc opens with a pair of works by Carlyle Sharpe. Flourishes has the feel of an extended preludial fanfare/festive work with fanfare figurations in the brass ensemble off-setting a toccata-like organ part. It has the great good sense to be short, succinct and direct in what it tries to achieve. Sharpe's second work is the three-part Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo. The Prelude opens with an imposing organ statement after which the brass enter with a Copland-esque melody which intertwines as more of the brass instruments join. This is where you hear that the players are not quite in the class of their Washington or Empire colleagues with intonation that is fractionally insecure. The movement ends as it began with solo organ. The first ninety seconds of the Elegy are again for solo organ. This is a rather beautiful and reflective movement which again ends as it began with solo organ. The concluding scherzo tosses musical material between the brass group and organ with uneven meter. This produces an energetic but unpredictable momentum. Again this is succinct and effective music that achieves what it sets out to do without excess of gesture or rhetoric.

The next of the commissioned works is a suite entitled The Dwarf Planets by William White. According to the liner White was inspired by the larger - in every sense - suite by Holst. Hence each of the five movements seeks to create a musical representation of the God or Goddess whose name has been given to the dwarf planet. The five movements are Haumea, Pluto, Ceres, Eris and Makemake. Haumea is the Hawaiian Goddess of fertility and childbirth and the music has a weighty chant-march quality. Shame there wasn't a moment to retake a trumpet fluff around 0:37. Pluto - famous for losing its 'planet' status - is depicted in a sustained quiet and slowly mysterious movement. In contrast Ceres is a kind of updated Praetorius-like Terpsichorean dance. There is a central lullaby which has echoes of Brahms before the 'harvest' dance returns. The penultimate movement is Eris - written as an organ solo. Eris is the Greek God of strife and discord represented by harmonies that clash in ever-increasing dissonance when played against a middle C that sounds throughout - a simple idea but one that White works out very effectively. The work closes with Makemake the creator of humanity and chief god of the bird-man cult on the Easter Islands. The music depicts a swimming race for the young people of the island and this is conveyed by muscular and athletic music played over a driving drum rhythm. As a whole the work is effective in depicting a wide range of moods and in its seventeen minute duration makes for a pleasingly diverse and well-contrasted suite.

Then follows David Marlatt's Earthscape. To quote from the score's frontpiece, this is "... a lyrical piece inspired by the view of our planet from space". There is a sustained hymn-like quality to the music - again with more than a hint of the 'wide-open prairie' that is both touching and effective in its simplicity and sincerity. The last of the commissioned works, Peter Meechan's Velvet Blue makes for a good closing item. Originally written for rock organ and brass, it is played here on a church pipe organ. Throughout the programme organist Jared Stellmacher plays very well but there is something a tad disconcerting about hearing distinctly rock/blues riffs and harmonies on a church organ in a church acoustic. The work is very straightforward - a sequence of rock-derived sequences that are played to their full by the entire group. It might not be profound but it is an entertaining end to this programme.

So something of a mixed bag in every respect. In isolation, this is a well-played and well engineered disc presenting a very diverse programme. The engineering across the two churches is satisfyingly consistent and impressive and the distinctive sounds of the two instruments have been well caught in the generous but not over-reverberant acoustics. The liner is well presented with attractive photographs of the ensemble and the organs used. The notes about the pieces are concise but informative. I would happily have traded all of the arrangements/transcriptions for some more original works. As a concept, brass and organ is a powerful and exciting aural feast and so it proves here although for absolute technical mastery other discs offer even greater delights.

Nick Barnard
Disc contents
Carlyle SHARPE (b.1965)

Flourishes (2005, 2010) [3:28]
Prelude Elegy and Scherzo (2012) [11:54]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Libiamo ne' lieti calici - La Traviata (1853 arr. Craig Garner, 2013) [3:16]
William WHITE (b.1983)
The Dwarf Planets (2012) [17:11]
David MARLATT (b.1973)
Earthscape (2011) [4:06]
Jaromír WEINBERGER (1896-1967)
Polka and Fugue from Schwanda, the Bagpiper (1926 arr. Craig Garner, 2013) [7:42]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Adagio and Maestoso from Symphony No.3 'Organ' (1886 arr. Craig Garner, 2012) [13:41]
Peter MEECHAN (b.1980)
Velvet Blue (2012) [6:20]



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