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Great Brass Recordings

Jaimie Hall | June 2013

    I find it fascinating that we spend so much time teaching music through reading, when it is an aural art form. Music is a language, and the key to being able to sound authentic is to hear the language spoken by others who are native speakers of that language, and then imitate what we have heard. As both a trumpet instructor and band director, I feel that it is incredibly important for my students to listen to the best sound models available.
    Ideally, good sound models should be heard in person, but unfortunately, few teachers can play every instrument at a professional level. Additionally, many of us lack access to high-quality performers. Therefore, the next best thing we can do for students is to provide them with the best recorded examples of great playing available. We are fortunate to have such easy access to recorded music. YouTube is a wonderful tool, but in my opinion, it has as many poor-quality recordings as good ones. I find it better to choose what students listen to, and I feel the following recordings are some of the finest available.

Large Brass Ensembles
    The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli is one of the earliest of its kind. Comprised of double and triple brass quintets from the brass sections of the Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia Orchestras, this group performs the music of Gabrieli. Included here are such standands as “Canzone per Sonare Numbers 1 – 4,” and “Canzon Prima Toni.” The sound is stunning, almost as if you are sitting in the middle of these amazing artists as they play back and forth to one another in antiphonal choirs.

    The Bay Brass is made up of players from the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet Orchestra, and Opera Orchestra. In 2011, they released their second recording, Sound The Bells. This recording includes compositions by John Williams, Bruce Boughton, Michael Tilson Thomas, Morton Lauridsen, Kevn Putz, and Scott Hilzik. Most of the works were conducted by the composers, which provides these pieces an ideal interpretation. Several of the pieces were commissioned by the Bay Brass. All of the works on this recording were written within the last 40 years, with three of them composed since 2002. This is some of the most stunning brass playing I have ever heard. The flexibility of this group is amazing, and the tonal colors and intonation are second to none. The Bay Brass shines on every selection. I think the John Williams selections and “Elegy for Brass” by Kevin Puts deserve special recognition.

    Americana by the London Symphony Brass, under the direction of Eric Crees, is a recording that I would take with me if banished to a desert island. Included here are selections by Copland, Bernstein, Cowell, Ives, and Barber. Of special recognition is “Somewhere,” from Bernstein’s Suite from West Side Story. This is the best example I have found illustrating the contrast between the delicate warmth and sheer power of brass instruments. This recording is currently available as an mp3 download. However, for those of you like myself who must have a cd, this recording has been rereleased under the title Brass Americana.

    Summit Brass Live is a must have. Founded in 1985 by David Hickman, the Summit Brass is comprised of many of the nation’s leading brass soloists, chamber musicians, and orchestral players. This recording was made during the final concert of the 2003 Rafael Mendez Brass Institute. Many outstanding composers are represented on this recording, including J.S. Bach, Dimitri Shostakovich, Eric Ewazen, and Allen Vizzutti. I especially enjoyed Vizzutti’s “Prism: Shards of Color for Brass and Percussion.” Each movement, titled after a different color, features a different brass soloist (Dan Perantoni on tuba, Larry Zalkind on trombone, Brian Bowman on euphonium, Gail Williams on horn, and Allen Vizzutti on trumpet). The other piece that blew my mind was Richard Strauss’s “Vienna Philhar-monic Fanfare.” The sound and precision of this ensemble are stunning, and when listening to it I forgot it was a recording of a concert until I heard the applause at the end.

    The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live was recorded in 2010 in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center. The group is conducted by Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, and Mark Ridenour, all members of the ensemble. This recording is as close as it is possible to get to hearing the signature brass sound of the Chicago Symphony without attending a concert. This Chicago Symphony brass sound has been the standard for orchestral brass since the 1950s, when the catalyst for this sound was established by principal trumpet Adolph Herseth, and principal tuba Arnold Jacobs. The tradition is carried on through this wonderful live recording, which includes: Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” Prokofiev’s “Three Scenes from Romeo and Juliet,” and J.S. Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.” My favorite is the transcription of Grainger’s “Lincolnshire Posy.” This transcription is extraordinary and sounds as though Grainger actually wrote the piece for brass ensemble. I was especially blown away by the trumpet performance of the upper woodwind part in “The Brisk Young Sailor.” “Sensemaya” by Silvestre Revueltas is also extremely enjoyable. The playing is flawless throughout and another great example of performance at its absolute best.

     Sacre Symphoniae, the newest release by the Metropolitan Opera Brass, is a marvelous recording of the Antiphonal Motets of Giovani Gabrieli. It was recorded in 2012 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, which is a gorgeous and massive building that allows for the many nuances of performing this type of antiphonal music to come to life, even on cd. The gothic vaulting rings for ten seconds after every release. With the exception of “Canzon Septimi Toni a 8,” all of the other works are new transcriptions that have never been recorded before. The motets differ from the canzonas and sonatas as there is less individual interplay between the lines, and more choir against choir playing, which allows for more large blocks of sound. In addition to the outstanding arrangements, the level of playing is extraordinary. This group’s performance is a clinic on how brass instruments should sound.

Brass Quintets
    The American Brass Quintet was organized in 1960. This group set a goal of establishing the brass quintet as one of the major chamber music ensembles, which was at that time predominantly made up of string groups and pianist. The American Brass Quintet sought to expand the brass quintet repertoire, not through transcriptions, but with commissions written exclusively for brass quintet. American Visions is an excellent example of the fulfillment of this mission, with works written by American composers Melinda Wagner, Andrew Thomas, Robert Beaser, Samuel Adler, Joan Tower, and William Schumann. The music on this recording is of the highest artistic quality. I especially enjoyed the Beaser “Brass Quintet,” and Joan Tower’s “Fifth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” The American Brass Quintet has established itself as major force in the classical chamber music world, as they have a discography of more than 45 recordings. The performances here are first rate.

    The Canadian Brass is probably the world’s most renown brass quintet. This group has had a tremendous impact on the popularization of the brass quintet, and the various musical genres that can be performed by the brass quintet. This group has probably logged more travel miles than any other brass group in the world. I recommend The Pachelbel Canon – The Canadian Brass Plays Great Baroque Music. Included are many wonderful works arranged for brass, including Handel’s “Water Music,” Frecobaldi’s “Tocatta,” Pachebel’s “Canon,” and many of J.S. Bach’s works, including “Sheep May Safely Graze,” “Wachet Auf,” and “Little Fugue.” The highlight of this recording is Bach’s, “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.” The technical brilliance with which they perform, in addition to their consistently high standard of musicality, really make this piece a tour de force for brass quintet.

    The Empire Brass is one of the world’s finest brass quintets. Originally made up of members of the most prestigious orchestras in the United States the Empire Brass members soon left their symphony positions to perform in the quintet full time as their popularity grew. They have commissioned more than 50 brass quintet works covering a wide range of styles. Class Brass is a great introductory recording to Empire Brass. This recording includes work by Copland, Grieg, Bizet, Ravel, and Moussorgsky. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles” is especially noteworthy; trumpet player Rolf Smedvig’s performance on the G trumpet is astonishing. Copland’s “Simple Gifts” is gorgeous as well. Indeed, all of the Empire Brass recordings are excellent.

    The last of my recommendations is a set of recordings that can be purchased separately. The Orchestra Pro Series by Summit Records consists of recordings that are perfect for demonstrating the characteristic sounds of each brass instrument. Outstanding players from major symphonies perform and provide commentary on the most common orchestral excerpts for their instruments. The performers include: trumpeter Phillip Smith (principal, New York Philharmonic), hornist David Kreihbel (former principal, San Fran-cisco Symphony), trombonist Ralph Sauer (former principal, Los Angeles Philharmonic), bass trombonist Jeffrey Reynolds (formerly Los Angeles Phil-harmonic), tenor tubist Michael Mulcahy (Chicago Symphony), and tubist Gene Pokorny (principal, Chicago Symphony). These sound models are some of the finest in the entire world, and the commentary is also extremely helpful, especially for high school- and university-level players who are preparing excerpts for auditions.