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Ein’ feste Burg - Music of the Reformation
James CURNOW (b. 1943)
Réjouissance - Fantasia on "Ein’ feste Burg" (1987 rev. 2011) [6:23]
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Three Becker Psalms Op.5 [2:15]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 [6:33]
Ein’ feste Burg BWV 80 - Chorus and Chorale [6:46]
Three Lutheran Chorales [15:33]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Ecclesiastical Festival Overture on "Ein' feste Burg" Op.31 [7:53]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Organ Sonata in D minor Op.65 No.6 (1845) [15:35]
Symphony No.5 Op.107 'Reformation' - Finale (1830) [9:58]
Jared Stellmacher, Mark Sudeith (organ)
Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble/Stephen Squires
rec. 2017-19, St. Michael Church, Wheaton; Church of the Gesu, Milwaukee; First United Church, Oak Park, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1735 [70:53]

This is a very enjoyable programme of music, taking one of the great melodies of the Reformation, "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" - a typo right at the beginning of the otherwise excellent liner note sadly re-writes that as "Ein fest Burg ist under Gott" - and performing various works which feature the melody in arrangements - or original compositions - for brass, organ or an amalgamation of the two.  Brass and organ recitals are an enduringly effective combination and most brass ensembles have included this kind of recording in their discographies from Empire & Canadian Brass to the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble.  What makes Chicago Gargoyle Brass unusual if not unique is that they are specifically a brass and organ group.  This is the second disc I have reviewed of their work; overall, I would say this new disc is more successful than the earlier one, in part because the actual repertoire from Baroque to Romantic sits especially well in this format.

The disc opens with the one piece that falls outside that timeline: James Curnow's Réjouissance - Fantasia on "Ein' feste Burg".  Curnow is an American composer and this work originated in 1987 as a piece for band.  In 2011, he reworked it into the form here for brass quartet and organ.  The festive and brilliant nature of the work makes for a good curtain-raiser to the disc and sets the tone for a well-played, well-engineered programme.  This is not over-complex or demanding music but neither does it intend to be and I can imagine it being a useful and popular part of any similar concert programmes.  One of the interests here - more for organ aficionados - is that three different organs/venues were used.  Some performances are taken from concerts, some under studio conditions.  This does make for a slight shift of aural perspective from track to track but the MSR production team have done very well in evening out the differences and in any case the ear soon adjusts.  The only concern is that on a couple of the live tracks there are very noticeable audience coughs and the like which does rather break the spell - albeit momentarily.  The church acoustic also underlines an aspect I noted in my earlier review.  The brass players in Gargoyle Brass choose not to emphasise the sheer brilliance of their sound preferring a warmer, more rounded one.  Again, for this particular repertoire this works rather well giving the brass choir the effect of a registrational 'voice' rather than a distinct/separate group.

After the Curnow, are three very brief Psalm settings by Heinrich Schütz.  These arrangements are really simple transcriptions for brass quartet alone but none the worse for being simple and they show the well voiced and integrated playing of the group.  As with the previous disc, the actual members of Gargoyle brass seem to change not just in number but in actual personnel so although eleven brass players appear on the disc the maximum number in any single piece is six - and that just once - in the excerpt from the Reformation Symphony.  Furthermore, it should be noted that nearly half the programme is for solo organ.  All of the solo organ pieces with the exception of Nun Komm are performed by Jared Stellmacher - who appeared on the earlier disc too.  He is a fine player and his performances tend to be powerful, technically secure and well-paced.  He takes full advantage of the capabilities of the instruments he plays producing unashamedly 'big' interpretations - this is especially true of the Three Lutheran Chorales which I enjoyed a lot - although the quickly faded applause after the concluding Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Gesit BWV651 sounds distinctly tepid.  Before these Chorales the brass join again for a pair of transcriptions of the opening and closing movements of the Cantata Ein' feste Burg BWV80 [another typo in the liner misses the 'e' off feste here].  These transcriptions are by H. Rodney Holmes who is the founder of the group although he seems to play no performing role in it.  Again, these are straightforward transcriptions which make no particular demands of arranger or player - but the music suits this unvarnished approach.

It is no surprise that Bach should feature in this themed programme but Otto Nicolai (of Merry Wives of Windsor fame) is more of a rarity.  His Ecclesiastical Festival Overture was originally written for chorus, woodwind, brass timpani and organ.  Craig Garner's version for brass quintet and organ is very enjoyably effective.  This is another 'live performance with applause retained.  The church acoustic allows the energetic tuba and trombone writing to register with particular vibrancy but again it has to be said that the MSR production team manage the balance between the various instruments very well so each element has an impact without overwhelming the others.  Another liner note typo implies that the Mendelssohn Organ Sonata No.6 in D minor Op.65 is another arrangement by Garner.  It is not - this is a solo performance of the work as written by the composer.  I know the six Mendelssohn sonatas from only one other performance by Wouter van der Broeck.  For a non-organist these works come as an unexpected and pleasurable surprise and both performances are impressive with Stellmacher on this new disc preferring a more directly virtuosic 'Romantic' style to the more devotional der Broeck.  The disc is completed with another Mendelssohn work, the finale from his Symphony No.5 'Reformation' Op.107.  Garner retains the timpani part as well as the six brass players mentioned before.  Personally, I find the timpani add little for this single appearance on the disc.  Again, the use of the brass as a near registrational sub-group allow the ear to be led by Mendelssohn's inter-weaving of the various chorale melodies and motifs - all of which combine to create an exhilarating conclusion to the disc.

Aside from the careless proof-reading of the liner, the material it contains is well presented and interesting.  Various photographs of the organs used, and those of the church door where Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 as well as an old manuscript of the choral melody enhance the booklet.  Organ specialists will be disappointed that individual specifications of each of the three instruments used are not included.  By dividing the programme into half for brass with organ and half for organ alone the disc does risk splitting its potential appeal too.  That said, I found it to be well conceived, well-engineered and well performed, and the kind of mixed programme that I enjoy listening to repeatedly.

Nick Barnard



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