THREE CENTURIES FOR FOUR BRASS. GERVAISE: 6 Bransles (1555). SIMON: Quatour
en forme de sonatine (1890). A. GABRIELI: Ricercare del primo tono (1589).
ADOLPHE: Desperate Measures (1982). HOVHANESS: Psalm for Brass Quartet,
op. 358 (1981). STARER: Profiles in Brass (1974).
Metropolitan Brass Quartet.
MSR Classics MSR 1228 (M) (DDD) TT: 49:51.
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It satisfies. I adore brass music. I couldn't tell you why. The Renaissance
brass music alone knocks me out. Perhaps it's partly the big, round sound
of it. The Classical and Romantic periods, although they contain stunning
brass orchestral and chamber parts, show only a few isolated examples
of all-brass, but we pick up again in the Modern era. Most brass ensembles
are quintets -- either 2 trumpets, a horn, and 2 trombones or one trombone
and a tuba. The founders of the Metropolitan Brass Quartet wanted something
analogous to a string quartet, with much less repertory to choose from.
Consequently, they have rooted out older material as well as commissioned
Poulenc's reworkings in his Suite française introduced me to Claude
Gervaise. The bransles -- originally, a rough country dance (from which
we derive our word "brawl") -- came to cover a wide range of
material, including dances for ceremonies and masques of the French court.
Gervaise's dances fit the latter type. Gervaise for me typifies the music
of the French Renaissance -- elegant, not all that contrapuntal, and,
above all, lively.
During the Romantic era, brass music not intended for military or ceremonial
occasions -- in other words, chamber music -- was fairly scarce. However,
toward the end of the 19th century, it enjoyed a vogue in Russia, especially
in St. Petersburg. Simon's quartet comes from that period. It's a gracious
work in four solidly-developed movements. It became an instant favorite
ever since I heard an old LP of the Empire Brass Quintet. The idiom may
strike some as odd, with Borodinish hints, but mainly, I think, because
it has no affinities at all with the brass music of the Renaissance.
Andrea Gabrieli, less well-known than his nephew Giovanni, made Venice
a musical center, helping to develop the Venetian antiphonal style. He
wrote music in all forms of the day. In fact, his incidental music for
a production of Oedipus Rex (in Italian translation) is, I believe, the
only surviving example of music specifically intended for a theatrical
production, as opposed to a court masque. The Ricercare I first heard
in an orchestral arrangement by Hermann Scherchen. It's a long-breathing
somber and reflective, and even better in its original brass form.
I've heard Bruce Adolphe's music before, and its wit charmed me. Desperate
Measures, however, seems absolutely devoid of either charm or wit. For
me, it hits the ground with a simple thud.
The one fact about Alan Hovhaness most people can't get their heads around
is how much he wrote. Many fault him for this, contending that his facility
compromised quality and that he got repetitive. I admit some pieces do
echo others and one can easily identify the composer's fingerprints on
a work. With at least 600 opus numbers, it would amaze me if it weren't
so. I would also say that, to a large extent, Hovhaness's compositions
consist of first thoughts, as if they never meet a snag or a doubt on
their way from brain to pen. However, those first thoughts often stun
their beauty and brilliance. The Psalm is Hovhaness's often-used form
of chorale, alternating with fugato passages, and it's gorgeous.
Born in Vienna, Robert Starer, a Jewish student at the Vienna State Academy,
obtained a scholarship to the Jerusalem Conservatory in what was then
Palestine, thus escaping the Anschluß. He came to the U.S., still relatively
young and in 1948 studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. In 1949, he
became part of the Juilliard faculty. His music has "edges," highly
chromatic (at one point, he briefly turned to serialism but found it limited
him too much), troubled, and yearning. He wrote a particularly fine viola
concerto. Presently, not many of his major works have made it to CD. I
particularly recommend his K'li zemer for clarinet and orchestra on Naxos
8.559403. Although everything I've heard displays a goodly amount of craft
and thought, the minor works don't grab you emotionally. Starer's 5 Brass
Miniatures (not currently available) has deservedly become a repertory
staple. The Profiles in Brass, based on music he wrote for a Martha Graham
dance piece, Holy Jungle, unfortunately strikes me as one of the duds.
Its section titles -- "The Pilgrim," "Lucifer," "The
Angelic Bride," "The Militant," and "Hell-Eve" --
typify Graham's penchant for the Grand Statement (did she ever create a "light" dance,
like Les Biches or Jeu de cartes?). Starer's music, fortunately, isn't
as turgidly significant as the titles imply. Indeed, the textures are clean
and incisive throughout. It continually sounds like it will threaten to
break into something soaring, but never makes good. I liked the "Lucifer" movement
best. The devil usually interests artists more than the heavenly host.
As Blake once remarked, Milton "was a true Poet and of the Devil's
party without knowing it."
The Metropolitan Brass Quartet plays with verve and elegance, retaining
nevertheless a flexibility of style for each piece. It's a fine program.
The CD reissues an older LP, but the engineering is so good, you'd take
it for a contemporary recording.
S.G.S. (August 2010)