Back from Oblivion

Robert Markow
Opus (Canada)
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And now for something completely different: How about a recital of music for ophicleide? Remember the ophicleide? Australian trombonist Nick Byrne has resurrected this 19th-century instrument for a 67-minute recital on the plucky Australian label Melba, demonstrating the distinctive qualities of this obsolete bass instrument of the brass family. Byrne, a member of the Sydney Symphony, is a recognised specialist on the instrument.

As Clifford Bevan points out in his extensive and highly informative liner notes, it was Roger Norrington’s 1989 period-instrument recording of Berloiz’s Symphonie fantastique that initiated a serious reconsideration of the possibilities of the ophicleide. The following year brought what is thought to be the first full-length ophicleide recital ever, in London.

Make no mistake: this is no freak show. Byrne is a serious musician who plays his instrument with all the expressive beauty, eloquence and sincerity one expects from any other instrumentalist. There is no sense of struggle, and Byrne moves about the instrument’s wide range with perfect ease and amazing agility. Its tone quality is somewhere between that of a trombone and a tuba, with a mellow sweetness usually lacking in modern instruments. Bevan dubs it “the most bel canto of brass instruments”...

Byrne’s program understandably consists mostly of transcriptions, including pieces by Handel, Grieg, Elgar, Rachmaninov and Piazzolla (the Oblivion tango, of course!)

But there is also a movement (Adagio) from an actual concerto, a “work in progress”, by the contemporary English composer Simon Proctor and theme-and-variation sets by obscure Belgian (Dieudonné Dagnelies), German (Gotthelf Heinrich Kummer) and French (Hyacinthe Klose) composers.

Specialists may be interested to know that Byrne plays two instruments, both pitched in C, one made by Finke (c.1830), the other by Halari/Sudre (c.1875). But the appeal of this disc is not limited to specialists; most anyone with a sense of curiosity will find something of interest here… the disc might well serve as a conversation or merely as a pleasant accompaniment to a dinner party or social evening.

Performance and Sound: **** (4 stars)