Based on instruments commonly found in Javanese gamelan orchestras, the vibraphone came into existence right around 1920. In terms of expressive potential, the vibes have a bit of an edge over other mallet instruments as they have a darker sound than the xylophone and the capability, albeit limited in some respects, of sustain. It is not as dark and woody as the marimba, and its bell-like tone has found a much readier welcome in jazz than in classical music, where instruments like the xylophone and glockenspiel had been established even before vibes were invented. It is not right to say that the vibes have never been effectively used in classical music -- certain works of Gavin Bryars come to mind -- but these are mainly in pieces that bear some relationship to jazz.
Nick Parnell's Classical Vibes gives a selection of standard classical chestnuts to the vibraphone treatment. Parnell is Australian, as is the label ABC Classics, and is a concert percussionist who definitely knows his way around the vibes. From the standpoint of sheer playing, and for that matter recording, this is excellent. As one might expect, pieces with a rather rapid sense of attack, such as the Johann Sebastian Bach pieces -- which have also been played on marimba -- and Flight of the Bumblebee fare a bit better than pieces that are more legato. The piano accompaniment, while generally adequate in terms of support to Parnell, is played on a very bright piano that sounds of Yamaha make. The brightness of the piano conflicts a bit with the tone of the vibes, and when the accompaniment is not filled out, as in the Satie Gymnopédie No. 1, a sort of an aural vacuum opens up. The arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D is just simply not successful. However, the Gershwin Three Preludes and all the Bach sound fine; again, these pieces are relatively easy to relate to jazz technique that tends to suit the vibes. Parnell is a terrific player, but the program is less than satisfying and the accompaniment of less than consistent quality. Parnell should not be discouraged from trying this again, perhaps considering some of the few classical works written for vibes or the wealth written for other mallet instruments, along with some pop standards and transcriptions of great jazz solos for the instrument, to achieve a wholly rounded and idiomatic display of the considerable emotive potential of the vibraphone.