London Symphony Brass

Sacred Brass: Polyphonic Brass Arrangements

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The Long Island, NY-based Alto label has picked up for reissue a number of unusual releases that have fallen through the cracks of the fast-changing classical recording industry. This disc, originally British, was recorded for the Collins label in 1991 and 2000 under the title Cathedral Brass. That was a somewhat better description of the contents than the present Sacred Brass, but the music is neither all sacred nor even all particularly well suited to a cathedral. One can somewhat sympathize with the marketers, for the appeal of the program lies exactly in the variety of the music and in the unlikeliness of some of the transcriptions. The Toccata and fugue in D minor, BWV 565, of Bach is somewhat unlikely, although the arrangement by London Symphony Brass leader Eric Crees succeeds in making the brasses sound very organ-like, and organ music and music for wind instruments were thought during the Baroque to have an affinity. The program moves on to a group of canzonas and sonatas by Giovanni Gabrieli, part of the bread and butter of the brass ensemble repertoire. Historically oriented groups tend to perform these with a more variegated ensemble, but the London Symphony Brass offers near-ideal brass versions, with clean arrangements that delineate Gabrieli's polyphonic touches and shifting antiphonal groupings, bringing out the contrasts among the pieces. The sequence of Gabrieli works is broken up by a couple of brilliant marches by Jeremiah Clarke of Masterpiece Theatre fame, and then comes the neatest trick of all: Crees arranges two Brahms Intermezzi and one Rhapsody for brasses. He's helped in his task by the chordal nature of the particular pieces he chooses, but the effect is nevertheless to transform the music into something sufficently distant from the originals that even the perfect Brahmsian may wonder what he or she is hearing. Crees returns to Bach for the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, furnishing a massive finale. Recorded on two separate occasions, the program might have come off as a hodgepodge, but it works, partly thanks to the consistent musicianship of the players involved. The disc would make a good offbeat gift for someone who likes brass quintet music.

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