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.

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 new work.

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 work, 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 you with 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)