Back from Oblivion

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International (UK)

The ophicleide is a strange, hybrid instrument. It came into being in Paris in the early 19th century and has as one of its forbears the Serpent. Essentially the ophicleide is a brass instrument, played with a trombone mouth-piece but the pitch of whose notes is controlled by finger holes, like a woodwind instrument. This means that the ophicleide is difficult to control and makes great demands on the player’s technique. It was in very common usage in the nineteenth century and became a popular solo instrument.

Paris in the early nineteenth century was a ferment of instrumental invention. John Eliot Gardiner’s performances of Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Châtelet Theatre in 2005 were remarkable for their use of a series of brass instruments invented by Adolphe Sax, rather than the later brass replacements commonly used. These then newly invented instruments were intended to improve the instrumental repertoire and sound. Not everyone succeeded and only some, like the saxophone, have gone one to have modern success. But as Nick Byrne, the player on this disc points out, the ophicleide has many problems similar to the contemporary saxophone. Whereas the saxophone went on to have numerous improvements made to it, the ophicleide has remained marooned in the sidelines of history.

Nick Byrne is an Australian trombonist who has devoted some considerable time to making inroads into ophicleide performance practice. He describes the instrument as a stern task-mistress, but you would not know it from the stunning performances on this disc. The repertoire here mixes nineteenth century works specifically written for the instrument with transcriptions of pieces both ancient and modern.

In terms of sound quality the instrument seems to combine elements of the French Horn with the bassoon. As performed by Byrne it displays the facility for both fine, legato playing and agility.

The nineteenth century instrumental display pieces tend to exploit both of these characteristics, giving the player the opportunity for fine legato and also extreme virtuoso passages. Generally the music consists of an introduction, a slow section (legato) and a fast virtuoso conclusion. The Fantasie Variée by the Belgian composer Dieudonné Dagnelies provides the player with a series of variations which enable a display of all of their talents. The piece is not particularly deep, but when well played, as it is here, you cannot help but smile.

That is one of the advantages of this disc, Byrne wears his learning and virtuosity lightly and does not try to make a greater case for the music than it warrants, leaving us to simply sit back and enjoy a lovely recital.

The second piece on the disc is the slow movement from Simon Proctor’s Ophicleide Concerto. This is a contemporary piece designed to show what the instrument is capable of, and this lovely slow movement allows Byrne to display his talent for legato playing. Proctor seems to be an enthusiast for ancient instruments as he has written a number of works for Serpent as well.

The Introduction and Polonaise by the French flautist Jules-Auguste-Edouard Demerssemen was inspired by the valve trombone. The piece works well on the ophicleide, though it makes serious demands on the player. Byrne is up to the challenge and you never feel the work is overwhelmed by technical issues.

Elgar’s Romance was composed for the bassoonist of the LSO but the pieces works well enough on the ophicleide, though there is no indication that Elgar had any inkling of the instrument’s existence.

Kaspar Kummer’s Variations for ophicleide is another example of the extreme virtuoso display piece from the 19th century. As with the others on the disc, Byrne copes admirably and you can’t help but smile again…

…"O Ruddier than the Cherry" from Handel’s Acis and Galatea… originally written for bass soloist, it was a popular ophicleide solo in the 19th century and Byrne responds well to Handel’s bass writing…

Hyacinthe Eleonore Klose’s Air Varié was written for the bassoon. It makes strong demands on the instrument but the ophicleide, being a keyed instrument, is also capable of playing it and Byrne provides a tour de force.

The final piece in the recital is the most revealing, Astor Piazzolla’s lovely, melancholic Oblivion, which indicates that there might be a contemporary voice for this fascinating instrument.

Nick Byrne and his accompanist, David Miller, wear their learning and virtuosity lightly. The result is a highly enjoyable and entertaining recital which reveals the immense possibilities of a neglected instrument.