Back from Oblivion

Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide (US)

A couple of years ago, Doug Yeo released a terrific album that revived the long-dead serpent, an amusing yet dignified old relic that once was the bass voice of the wind family. Not to be outdone, Nick Byrne now proposes to revive the long-dead ophicleide. If you are as interested in the history of brass instruments as I am, you will greatly enjoy this album.

Invented in the early 19th Century as the bass member of the keyed bugle family (keys preceded valves by only a few years), the ophicleide was more powerful than the serpent and thus potentially of greater use in the orchestra. Intonation woes and tone inconsistency soon proved it unsatisfactory, however, and the way was paved for the much more stable tuba.

The notes by brass historian and fellow ophicleidan Clifford Bevan point out that the instrument was valued for its vocal tone, and so a few players in the 19th Century were noted for adapting vocal solos to the instrument. ‘O Ruddier than the Cherry’, sung by the giant Polyphemus in Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea, was one such and is perhaps the centre of Nick Byrne’s collection. It is a relentless thing, now blocky and angular, now all rapidly descending scales, a seemingly ideal choice for the quirky ophicleide. Also from the vocal realm are Schumann’s ‘Ich Leibe Dich’ and the ubiquitous Vocalise by Rachmaninov.From the 19th Century instrumental realm are sets of variations by Dieudonné Dagnelies, Kaspar Kummer, and Hyacinthe Klose; an ‘Introduction et Polonaise’ by Jules Demerssemen; and the ‘Romance’ by Edward Elgar. The melodramatic variations are given doggedly determined readings by Byrne and pianist David Miller. And then, perhaps to prove Byrne’s notion that the ophicleide could become an instrument of today, not just of long ago, he gives a soulful reading of Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion’ and a crooning account of an Adagio by Simon Proctor, part of as-yet unfinished Ophicleide Concerto that manages to look both nostalgically backward and optimistically forward.

Australian-born Nick Byrne, second trombonist with the Sydney Symphony, is a superb player, with beautiful, warm tone that only rarely reveals the instrument’s oddness. His instruments were built in 1830 and 1874. Lovely collaboration by pianist [David] Miller; fine recorded sound.