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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa