Jean-Baptiste ARBAN (1825-1889)
Fantasies on Verdi Operas
La traviata [8:49]
Il trovatore [8:37]
Don Carlos [10:12]
I Lombardi all prima crociata [5:56]
Simon Boccanegra [8:15]
I vespri Siciliani [9:04]
Un ballo in maschera [8:00]
Il trovatore – Miserere [8:08]
Luisa Miller [7:53]
Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio [6:58]
La forza del destino [10:53]
Angelo Cavallo (cornet)
Michele Fontana (piano)
rec. Casa Museo Barezzi di Busetto, Italy, 2016
DYNAMIC CDS7784.02 [2 CDs: 120:01]
Before the days of iPads and digital downloads of sheet music, brass players associated Jean-Baptiste Arban with an horrendously vast book of studies which, in many circles, was nicknamed the “music-stand-buster”. Bad enough to travel to lessons lugging around an unwieldy black case moulded to an equally unwieldy instrument, but to add insult to injury, to have to add to one’s burdens possibly the heaviest volume of music known to mankind, surely put plenty of prospective brass players off for life. And when the book was opened, I was never sure that all that weight-lifting had been worthwhile; prodigiously prolific as Arban was, his ability to approach every imaginable technical challenge from every conceivable angle hardly endeared him to generations of students. And once you had mastered the studies contained within his massive and opulently-entitled Grande méthode complète, there was the monumentally challenging Carnival of Venice to get through, with its endless variations and lip-destroying absence of rests. As a young brass student I have to confess my relationship with Arban was never an happy one, and while I knew, had I persevered with it, it would have done me good, rather like a diet of carrot juice and raw lettuce, a loathing for the medicine overcame any faith in its ultimate beneficial qualities. Had I known then that there were these 14 extended Fantasies using themes from Verdi operas to put the lip under even more strain, I might not have progressed as far as I did brass-wise.
For all the student horror of Arban, he was a significant figure in the history of brass instruments, and possibly the leading figure in the development of the cornet à piston, for which his studies and various fantasies were originally written (even if his posthumous influence has spread over the entire spectrum of brass). He first made his name, however, conducting salon orchestras and later at the Paris Opéra, before being appointed professor of saxhorn at the Ecole Militaire, and establishing the first ever cornet class at the Paris Conservatoire, taking the instrument away from its previous place as a kind of substitute trumpet and building up a repertory all of its own. He also worked alongside various instrument makers and engineers to improve various aspects of the instrument. His fantasies were intended to demonstrate many of the devices and techniques he himself was responsible for introducing to the cornet.
For this (what appears to be) first recording of the complete set of Verdi opera Fantasies, Angelo Cavallo produces a suitably mellow tone from his cornet à piston and handles all the technical challenges with ease, adding a pleasing military crispness to the jaunty rhythms such as that which concludes I Lombardi. A very restrained vibrato, a somewhat limited dynamic range and a general absence of dramatic gesture does nothing to dispel the overriding feeling that this is music more intended for private technical work-out rather than public consumption. When familiar themes pop up – the Rigoletto fantasie is particularly full of them – they seem grey and uneventful, and the principal interests Cavallo seems to find in the music are the very predictable alternating fast and slow variations, as well as the obligatory sets of running triplets. Michele Fontana is a suitably supportive pianist who sets the scene in his introductions, touches base with some firmly planted rhythmic support, and only occasionally seems inclined to add his own touch of drama - there are spectacular if short-lived bursts of virtuosic personality in I vespri siciliani. The recording sets it all in a slightly hazy environment, which is probably only to the benefit of music which, with the best will in the world, is of rather more interest to those performing it than it is to those listening to it.