Back from Oblivion

Paul Schmidt
International Tuba Euphonium Association Journal (US)

As I write this review, I need to pause periodically to wipe away a tear; one of both joy at finally seeing a solo ophicleide recording appear on the world stage, and simultaneously out of musical sympathy for the beauty and perfection with which the artists involved have realized it. I write this review as an amateur ophicleidist, one who knows well the difficulties in dealing with this stern mistress, without the exhilaration of having mastered her. As I have dabbled, I wished that a true virtuoso would step up and deliver a recording that shows the instrument at its best... Now in 2007, Nick Byrne, trombonist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, has produced Back From Oblivion, the first and so far only recording dedicated to this unique and deserving instrument.

Byrne’s personal website has been telling the story of this project for years now. He wanted to produce an album that would stand on its own, with quality of performance, music selection, and recording technique that would achieve an overall perfection. Ideally, such an album would consist of all original period ophicleide solos. He has selected carefully from the relatively small pool of quality (and published) period ophicleide compositions, but the set also includes transcriptions of vocal music, bassoon and trombone solos, and contemporary solos written for the ophicleide. For the record label, he collaborated with Melba Recordings, the small Australian company that specializes in recordings of great “bel canto” singers. For backup, he partnered with pianist David Miller, one of Australia’s leading vocal accompanists. Finally, Clifford Bevan, who would be anyone’s first choice to write authoritative notes about ophicleides, was enlisted to do so.

I will not spoil things by trying too hard to describe the ten selections included in this recording, since it is really the playing that should be heralded; but a brief mention is certainly appropriate. The actual period ophicleide compositions include Fantasie Variée by Belgian composer Dieudonné Dagnelies and Variations for Ophicleide by Gotthelf Heinrich Kummer, an obscure composer who liked to write for unusual instruments. Contemporary English composer Simon Proctor also likes to compose concertos for neglected instruments, having already done wonderful things for the repertoire of the keyed bugle and the serpent. And, his Ophicleide Concerto, a work-in-progress, is represented here by the “Adagio” movement.  

In the category of vocal transcriptions are “O Ruddier Than the Cherry” from Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea (long a favorite ophicleide solo), Edvard Grieg’s Ich Liebe Dich, and Rachmaninov’s haunting Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14. Playing compositions written for other bass wind instruments, Byrne has included Introduction et Polonaise, Op. 30 by Jules Demersseman (originally for valve trombone) and Romance, Op. 62 by Edward Elgar (for bassoon). Hyacinthe Klosé, whose compositions have been used for everything from clarinet to tuba, contributes his Air Varié, Op. 21, and Oblivion, by tango master Astor Piazzolla, closes the album.

These selections allow Byrne to show the ophicleide in both its expressive and plaintive upper register, where it is simultaneously vocal, resonant and vibrant, and its “warm and gruff” lower reaches what otherwise would be heard only in its former use as the bass member of early brass bands. The most virtuosic selections are the Fantasie Varieé, Introduction et Polonaise, and Air Varié, while the most hauntingly vocal are the Proctor Adagio and the Vocalise. Byrne plays his excellent 1875 ophicleide in C by Halary/Sudre, an instrument high on the curve of development that ended prematurely in the last decades of the 19th Century. In reality, no further development of this branch of the brass family has taken place until the recent efforts of Erhard Schwartz in Berlin... The performances are lyrical and touched with that slightly fruity buoyancy that so typifies fine bel canto style, so appropriate to the Victorian sensibility. Byrne’s playing shows the instrument in the best possible light, complemented by the exceptionally natural sounding recording done by engineer Tim Handley. The ophicleide is the only large wind instrument where the “effective bell” moves around the instrument as it is played, and this presents a problem during recording sessions. Here, the sound itself more closely resembles that of a vocalist standing near the piano; all sense of the unfortunate aspects “ophicleide-edness” are absent, with only that subtly unique timbre, which is at once both vocal and brass, identifying the instrument.

Although this CD has already been popular on the play-lists of classic radio programs and has dominated sales at Melba over the past two months, showing no sign of slowing down, this specialised release is most readily obtained directly from the record company’s website at the time of this writing... My copy arrived by priority mail less than two weeks after placing my order.

This CD is valuable as the recorded history that it is, and, more importantly, it is a very fine example of brass playing with a selection of tracks that will bring the listener back again and again. This one gets my highest recommendation.