deified pentatone

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare TrV 248 (1924)
Jonathan Bingham (b.1989)
Deified (2022)
Arturo Sandoval (b.1949)
Brass Fantasy (2022)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
The Ring (after Der Ring des Nibelungen 1853-1876, arr. Timothy Higgins)
National Brass Ensemble/Eun Sun Kim
rec. live, 20 June 2022, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA
Reviewed in stereo
Pentatone PTC5187049 SACD [2 discs: 101]

This two-disc set from Pentatone is a recording of the concert given by the National Brass Ensemble in June 2022.  They are a remarkable ensemble which is the brainchild of Michael Sachs, principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra.  He sought to bring together many of the USA’s finest orchestral brass players to perform and run an Academy for young musicians.  This appears to be the third such event after those in 2014 and 2015.  The roster is pretty startling with brass players from Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Indianapolis, Nashville and San Francisco alongside a pair of harpists (Cleveland and San Francisco), an organist and three percussion (also Cleveland and San Francisco).  All directed by the music director of the San Francisco Opera Eun Sun Kim.  The total onstage playing strength is thirty one and a mighty sound they make.  Pentatone have provided a discreetly sophisticated DSD multi-channel recording that copes with the wide dynamic range and soundstage effortlessly.

Two accommodate the full 100 minute concert it has been sensibly split between two discs.  Disc one is just 21:34 and opens with Richard Strauss’ exhilarating Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare TrV248.  This is not as imposing or grandiose as the Festmusik des Stadt Wien AV.133 but in this context it is an ideal opener and one that instantly sets out the stall for the brilliance of the playing and musicianship on display here.  I am no brass player but this group has a characteristically bright and ringing American sound.  There is an energy and dynamism in the playing that is genuinely thrilling.  But at the same time the blend and warmth of the full brass ‘choir’ is a wonder.  I can imagine this delighting any lover of good music-making but for brass aficionados it will surely be an especial pleasure.

Although the music-making is stunning throughout the two newly commissioned works that complete the first disc are something of a disappointment.  Simply because they both sound – in different ways – rather generic.  Certainly they do not exploit the exceptional resource that is the National Brass Ensemble.  First is Deified by Jonathan Bingham.  This work is 10:56 in length and plays continuously.  Bingham supplies a brief liner note where he outlines the fairly simple musical device of two main elements; one rhythmic the other melodic.  The structure of the work moves incrementally from rhythmic dominance to melodic and then literally reverses the process.  The title of the work seems to reflect more this palindromic structure rather than any intention to invoke the divine.  The result is – as mentioned above – rather generic with muscular rhythmic cells countered by long breathed lines.  Superbly played here but hardly original.  Arturo Sandoval’s Brass Fantasy is even more disappointing.  As one of the great living jazz trumpeters I was hoping for/expecting something considerably more dynamic, edgier or just down-right entertaining than the sub-nine minute work here.  It is written in four distinct parts that play continuously with the opening bolero-like rhythm returning later in the piece.  As a whole the piece is quite pleasant and mellifluous – again played quite beautifully but I never thought I would hear a Sandoval work that sounded quite so musically bland.

The second disc is devoted to an extended arrangement [78:52] of excerpts by Timothy Higgins (the principle trombone of the San Francisco Symphony who also plays on this disc) of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Higgins follows the dramatic chronology of the original and has preserved all the original keys.  As an arrangement it is a genuine tour de force as he manages the tricky balance of providing the listener with all the ‘big’ set-pieces from the fourteen hour original without those excerpts then feeling like they are butchered bleeding chunks.  Indeed the whole work as offered here plays pretty much continuously and one of Higgins’ great triumphs is his skilled and seamless stitching together of passages that might well be an hour apart in the original.  There are occasions when Higgins has near-intractable problems with finding brass solutions to orchestral effects.  This usually results in the ear being drawn to secondary material – string trills moved to high trumpets in The Ride of the Valkyire pulling focus away from the primary material in the low brass.  Or trumpets again simply not able to evoke the bird calls of Forest Murmurs.  This is most certainly not a question of the players doing anything ‘wrong’ just that the required texture cannot be produced on that instrument.  Across the work Higgins in part mitigates this by adding a pair of harps and an organ.  The former are used sparingly but effectively.  The organ – as far as I could hear even over headphones – is even more sparingly used – mainly in the final Götterdämerung as far as I could tell.  Curiously the Pentatone recording makes almost nothing of the organ’s presence which when it could be heard is disappointingly recessed.  Götterdämerung excerpts are given the largest share overall – just over thirty three minutes of the total seventy nine which makes musical, arranging and dramatic sense since the sequence from Siegfried’s death through to the closing Immolation Scene includes some of the most overwhelming brass-dominated music in the entire tetralogy   The weighty sonority of the entire group is a genuinely thrilling sound.

Although this does appear to be a record of a single concert there is no audience noise at all with no applause retained and calibre of the playing is simply sensational with ensemble, intonation and execution to all intents and purposes perfect.  Conductor Eun Sun Kim clearly does a good job in directing the group although to be honest the abiding memory is of the playing rather than the interpretation.  The tempi are all sane and sensible and for good or ill there are no musical surprises along the musical journey.  The Pentatone recording is very good with generally good balance and fidelity – the recessed organ and slightly reticent harps the exception.  Presentation is very brief – I would have enjoyed more information about both new works as well as more insights from Higgins into his choices and the issues that arise arranging one of the biggest works in all the musical literature for brass.  The discs are presented in a cardboard double gatefold with the booklet glued to the central panel which makes it slightly unwieldy to read with the two disc inserts flopping around on either side.

For anyone who admires or collects recitals of modern symphonic brass playing this will be an eagerly sought-after set simply because of the talent it showcases.  For those more interested in the quality of the music that can be played by such an ensemble this is less of a compulsory purchase.

Nick Barnard

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