Sheer Fun and Quality Musicianship complement one another in Harmonic Brass

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vivaldi, Rodrigo, Binder, Anderson: Harmonic Brass: Hans Zellner. Elisabeth Fessler (trumpets), Thomas Lux (trombone), Andreas Binder (French Horn), Manfred Häberlein (tuba). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 24.3.2017. (GPu)

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Harmonic Brass

Antonio Vivaldi (arr. Zellner) – Concerto for Two Trumpets in C, RV 537
Joaquin Rodrigo (arr. Fessler) – ‘Adagio’ from Concierto de Aranjuez
Harmonic Brass (arr. Zellner) The Harmonic Brass Menu
Andreas Binder (arr. Zellner) Concerto Italiano
Leroy Anderson (arr. Zellner)Bugler’s Holiday

Founded in 1991 and based in Munich, Harmonic Brass is a virtuoso Brass Quintet, committed to entertainment as well as to serious music-making; they have given concerts in many parts of the world, often in prestigious venues (such as the Carnegie Hall, the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the Leipzig Gewandhaus). The current line-up of Harmonic Brass includes quite an age range. At the time of this concert, the four men in the ensemble ranged in age from 39 to 50, while the one woman, the brilliant trumpeter Elisabeth Fessler is a mere 28 (indeed, there was some comic by-play as to which of the men was her supposed grandfather!). The theatricality that Harmonic Brass bring to their work was evident even before the concert formally began, when the group ‘announced’ itself by having members of the quintet playing offstage both left and right and at the back of the hall, before they all made their way onto the stage (still playing an appropriate fanfare).

There was a great deal to enjoy in their concert, which began with a dazzling performance of one of the allegro movements from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets (RV 357), in an arrangement by Hans Zellner. Zellner and Fessler were the excellent soloists, both playing piccolo trumpets. Vivaldi survived the transcription/arrangement very well, and I strongly suspect that he would have enjoyed it and (though he was well used to high levels of musicianship in the Venice of his day) I am confident that he would have admired the playing of all of the members of Harmonic Brass, perhaps especially that of Ms. Fessler (which was richly virtuosic and thoroughly idiomatic). Vivaldi after all, clearly had eyes and ears well attuned to the skills of female musicians!

An arrangement of Delibes’ ‘Flower Duet’ (from Lakmé) had been billed as the second piece on the programme, but this was dropped and replaced by Ms. Fessler’s arrangement of the adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, with Fessler herself as the soloist. Her work was again both beautiful and technically impressive. Listeners familiar with modern jazz would, inevitably, have been prompted to think of the Miles David recording of the piece on the album, Sketches of Spain, in a (longer) arrangement by Gil Evans, at least as much as of the original guitar concerto. Evans had a substantial orchestra to work with in his arrangement, but the other four members of Harmonic Brass successfully produced, with more limited instrumentation, a rich cushion of sound in support of ‘their’ soloist. The whole was ravishingly beautiful.

I also loved the three movements from Andreas Binder’s Concerto Italiano. Said to embody memories of Italian tours made by Harmonic Brass, this was sophisticated light music. The first movement was apparently written in response to the winds in a North Italian village and was appropriately boisterous, while remaining lucid and orderly. The second movement, in which the formidable work of tuba player Manfred Häberlein was foregrounded, represented a walk in Rome and was tuneful and gracious with echoes both of the baroque and of Respighi. The third movement evoked “the crazy traffic in Naples”. Binder’s music was, thankfully, rather more decorous than the real thing, but was rich in suggestions of near-misses and the cacophony of car horns. Binder’s own work on the French horn was complemented by more fine playing from Häberlein and Hans Zellner.

Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday (in an arrangement by Zellner) was unalloyed delight. Here Binder was “graciously allowed” (!) by his colleagues to put down his French horn and ‘borrow’ a trumpet instead. The three trumpets were as tight as a good big-band trumpet section as they played some very rapid ensemble passages in very accomplished fashion, with trombone and tuba largely restricted to providing rhythmic and harmonic support. The arrangement worked very well and most of what is attractive about Anderson’s light music ‘classic’ was there for the audience’s enjoyment.

High-quality musicianship and sheer high-spirited fun were most closely bound together in a suite, co-composed by the members of the group as The Harmonic Brass Menu, in which the several courses of a favourite (or ideal) meal were represented both in music and stage business. This gave opportunities both for some fluent and expressive playing and for many comic touches, both instrumental and physical-facial, not least as the ‘meal’ progressed and the pleasures of particular dishes were evoked and celebrated, and the effects of over-indulgence became apparent!

All in all, a concert in which accomplished musicianship and sheer fun complemented one another perfectly and made for a delightful way to spend an hour in the middle of the day. Although I had eaten before this lunchtime concert, I found that my appetite was re-whetted by Harmonic Brass’s delicious musical menu!

Glyn Pursglove

Seen and Heard International apologies for the late publication of this review.

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