American Brass Quintessence  

American Brass Quintet could have gotten more mileage out of quoting me in its promo­tional material: “of all the brass quintets, this country’s most distinguished”. That’s not exactly what I wrote 10 years ago (Jan/Feb 1990: 116). What I wrote was, “of all the brass quintets, the most distinguished—in the world—and I haven’t changed my mind yet. What other brass group has been together for 40 years, has made music at such a consis­tently high level, has continued to improve, and has shown such catholic adherence to high-quality literature? And what other brass quintet has made such a strong case for the merits of using bass trombone instead of tuba as the bass instrument.

This 40th-Anniversary disc typifies the pro­grams ABQ has offered over the years. In several sets of Renaissance-era works, the group shows its commitment to variety and expressiveness. While I have never liked their spiky, stinging marcato style in some of these works, I admit that it makes an effective contrast to softer, smoother passages. Vocal pieces by Josquin des Prez sound inappropriate on these instruments but are elevated by the virtuoso skills of these players. I really like the Fantasias by Thomas Stolzer (1475-1526), especially the Hypodorian one, a somber, almost spooky piece that has been a trombone-ensemble favorite of mine for many years.

 

ABQ gives a nod to the baroque era with a dazzling reading of Bach’s Contrapunctus VII (Art of Fugue), then to the classical with four Luigi Cherubini marches written for brasses in 1814, just after the valve was invented. And then it tackles an original and substantial brass piece, Viktor Ewald’s Quintet 2. Until now, I had never heard an Ewald quintet played by a two-trombone group, and the superb bass trombon­ist John Rojak certainly makes it sound great. This wonderful reading is loaded with dynamic shape, emotion, and energy. It ranks with Stockholm Chamber Brass’s survey of the four quintets (July/Aug 1994) as the best on record.

Finally, ABQ shows its mastery of new music. In Anthony Plog’s Mosaics (1997), the trumpeters play flugelhorns in three of the four movements, resulting in a quintet sound so homogeneous that it is often difficult to tell when a line shifts from one instrument to another. The final note of I, a long, quiet octave for five players, is a thing of beauty. II is a remarkable study in virtuoso ensemble inter­play, III has a lot of solo work, arid IV is a jagged, driving finale. This is the most recent Plog work I have heard, and I continue to be impressed by his development as a composer. Mosaics is modernist but accessible, not as abstract as time works of Henri Lazarof, whose Invenzione Concertata (1997) is given a fierce reading.

Trumpeter Kevin Cobb sounds like an excellent replacement for former long-stand­ing member Chris Gekker. The other members of the group have been with it for a long time. They are trumpeter Raymond Mase, hornist David Wakefield, trombonist Michael Powell, and bass trombonist Rojak.

Kilpatrick – American Record Guide September/October 2000)

 

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