New Classical Tracks

New Classical Tracks: Brahms - From Keyboards to Brass

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
September 21, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Chuck Daellenbach has been the tuba player of the Canadian Brass since he became a founder of the group in 1970. Throughout the ensemble's history, he's played a key role in their groundbreaking projects, and it was Daellenbach who came to the group with the idea of recording the Eleven Chorale Preludes by Johannes Brahms which is the basis of their new recording, "Brahms on Brass."

Brahms wrote his Chorale Preludes for Organ in 1897. The Preludes represent "Brahms' musical testament...the quintessence of his art," according to Ralph Sauer, who made these arrangements. Sauer, a well-known professor of brass at Arizona State University, spent 32 years as principal trombonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and six years with the Toronto Symphony.

The chorales are profound meditations on life and death. In 1896 Brahms lost his lifelong friend and champion, Clara Schumann. The following summer his health began to fail. With death looming, Brahms began to compose the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ. Number 3, "O Welt, ich muss dich lassen" (O World, I now must leave thee), is the first of two settings of this chorale in the group. This one alternates between triple and quadruple meters making the mood lighter, more animated. The second version of this chorale is number 11, the very last in the set. In this arrangement, the phrases of the melody are separated by brief interludes, as if the composer is resigned to his fate, taking deep breaths between each line. It's the lush harmonies and glowing tones of the Canadian Brass that often stop me in my tracks. Close your eyes and just allow this ensemble's virtuosity to wash over you as you listen to the chorale "Herzlich tut mich erfreuen" ("My heart abounds with pleasure").

After deciding on the chorale preludes, the Canadian Brass then needed a way to fill out the rest of the recording. They started looking at the keyboard music of Brahms. Trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, (who joined the group at age 20 in 2006, becoming the youngest member in the ensemble's 40-year history), brought a recording of the composer's 16 waltzes to the group as they were touring in Europe. Each night while on tour, they arranged another waltz for brass. The first was number 15 in A-flat major. They discovered there are hidden melodies in this waltz. These "ghost" melodies come through even more strongly when assigned to Trumpeter Chris Coletti.

One thing the Canadian Brass loves about the music of Brahms is that the composer often uses two strong melodies simultaneously. The trick for pulling this off with a brass ensemble is to have different players trade off melodies, which is exactly what they do in the waltz No. 16. It makes something that would ordinarily be impossible to play, possible. Two trumpets are paired in this waltz, allowing voices to emerge that you wouldn't hear in the piano version.

All five members of the Canadian Brass are huge fans of the music of Brahms. After making this recording, they now consider themselves uber-fans of this great Romantic composer. As you listen to these waltzes and chorale preludes adapted for brass instruments, you'll hear this music in a completely new dimension, with new colors, timbres and musical inflections. On this recording of "Brahms on Brass," you'll hear that this ensemble spares no detail in their adaptations bringing a new sound, new life to these pieces, and new enjoyment for the listener.

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