Melba Recordings has hit on a brilliant strategy for marketing some of their fine Australian artists to a broader public: they compile thematic collections of music so obscure that much of it is available virtually nowhere else, for instance, nineteenth century British operatic arias. In this case, the novelty of the album is the solo instrument – the ophicleide.
The ophicleide was developed early in the nineteenth century, and was obsolete within a hundred years. It’s a sort of hybrid between a brass and woodwind instrument – it has a brass mouthpiece, looks something like a cross between a bassoon and a very scrawny tuba, and uses keys like a woodwind. It was often played by trombonists, but its tone is much more mellow and rounded than a trombone’s, like a bass version of a baritone horn. The extreme difficulty of playing it smoothly contributed to its demise, and tubas took its place as the bass of the brass section.
Australian trombonist Nick Byrne mastered the treacherous instrument, and presents a varied recital of eighteenth through twentieth century pieces, some written for the tiny solo repertoire for the ophicleide, but most of which are transcriptions. The Adagio from contemporary English composer Simon Proctor’s Ophicleide Concerto is relaxed, jazz-inflected and lyrical. Nineteenth century French composer Dieudonné Dagnielies’ Fantasie Variée, written for the instrument, is a piece of Romantic virtuoso fluff, as is his contemporary Kaspar Kummer’s Variations for Ophicleide. The transcriptions, including pieces by Handel, Grieg, Elgar, Rachmaninov, and Piazzolla, have more musical substance and are well suited to the ophicleide’s special lyrical capabilities. Byrne plays with such fluency and security that he makes it hard to believe that the ophicleide is really a difficult instrument. His musicality and the uniqueness of the instrument’s rich tone make his performances a pure pleasure, even in the musical trifles. Pianist David Miller accompanies him with energy and grace. Melba’s clean and present sound is exemplary.
PERFORMANCE: ****½ (4½ stars)
SOUND: ***** (5 stars)