Brahms on Brass (CD review)

Sixteen Waltzes; Ballade in D minor; Eleven Chorale Preludes. Canadian Brass. Opening Day Entertainment ODR 7415.

I'm only guessing here, but I doubt that trumpets, trombones, and horns would be the first instruments that come to most people's mind when thinking about waltzes, particularly Brahms's very Germanic waltzes. I mean, where's the typically lilting grace of a waltz in all-brass instruments? Yet Canadian Brass, one of the world's premiere brass ensembles, manages to pull it off well enough, as they do almost everything they tackle.

The program begins with Brahm's Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39, originally written in 1865 for piano, four hands, and here adapted for brass quintet by Brandon Ridenour and Chris Coletti. They are concert waltzes at about a minute or so each, so it's not exactly as though anyone were going to try to dance to them. The Canadian Brass play them with a wonderfully refined élan, each piece melodic and rhapsodic. The brass quintet, as expected, sounds fuller than any piano accounts, almost as though being played by an entire body of strings, which may or may not appeal to everyone. The tunes alternate between slow and bouncy, always charming, folksy, swirling, and exciting.

The centerpiece of the album is the Ballade in D minor, Op. 16, No. 1, the first of four ballades for piano Brahms wrote in 1854, and here adapted for brass octet and timpani by Brandon Ridenour. It makes a serious statement and stands in dramatic contrast to the lighter waltzes that open the show. Brahms intended for the Ballade to evoke the mood of a mythological Gaelic tale, which I'm not entirely sure I heard in it. However, it is fun, and the dark tones conveyed by the brass instruments go a long way toward creating a medieval atmosphere.

The disc concludes with Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, written in 1896 and published posthumously several years later, here adapted for brass quintet by Ralph Sauer. They come off best, in part because they are the most-mature works on the disc, and the Canadian Brass give them due respect. Originally, Brahms intended them for organ, and one can easily imagine the organ in the brass ensemble, supplemented by the additional instruments, the team providing a rich tapestry of sound.

Speaking of sound, Opening Day Entertainment recorded the album in 2010 at Christ Church, Deer Park, Toronto, Canada, the sonics coming up both warm and mellow on the one hand and clean and transparent on the other. Or as transparent as a group of brass instruments (trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba) can sound. In other words, we get pretty good clarity without sacrificing easy listening to any brightness or harshness. There is also an ample stereo spread involved and a good sense of instrumental depth.

Finally, a word about the packaging. The single disc comes housed in a Digipak container that folds out to four sections, something like a road map and about as much fun to get back together as refolding a road map. There is no booklet insert, the notes and contents written on the foldout portions of the package. It's a bit clumsy, and I don't really care for the idea of a Digipak, anyway. If you break the center spindle, you can't just buy another jewel box for the disc. It's a minor qualm about an otherwise excellent release.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa