An enchanting and unique collection, a rediscovery of what’s in those scores

Wagner for Brass

A new recording has been released of one of the more remarkable treatments of Wagner’s music: “Wagner for Brass” performed by the Neos Brass and arranged by Herman Jeurissen.

Album Wagner for Brass

(Not to be confused with the Philips CD of the same name featuring the Canadian Brass and members of the Bayreuth orchestra.) 

Jeurissen explains in the liner notes that the introduction of valved instruments in the early 19th Century was embraced only cautiously, in part because of the uneven quality and unfamiliar sound of the instruments.  But Adolphe Sax imposed a uniform design on them, and Wagner (while eventually using instruments other than Sax’s) gave brass instruments a prominent role in the Ring, Parsifal, Tristan and Meistersinger

Jeurissen notes that “in classical instrumentation, the brass mainly offered rhythmical, harmonic and dynamical support to the string orchestra, [while] the Ring frequently reverses those roles, with strings and wood supporting the actual music event with figurations, tremolos and arpeggios whilst the tessitura of the brass was fully expanded.”  Examples are Siegmund’s and Hundig’s motifs, the todesverkundigen, the trumpets in Meistersinger, and the extraordinary brass choirs in Parsifal, which to Jeurissen “seems often to be replacing the imaginary organ.”

The music on this disc is revelatory.  To start with, the ensemble is remarkable.  A teaser of the music may be heard here.

The compositions themselves, though, are just gripping.  A kind of rhapsody from Lohengrin evidences far more perception and musicality than a mere pastiche.  Two works appear that I have never heard before: Ankuft Bei den Schwarzen Schwänen (1861), written as a thank-you to the wife of the Prussian consul in Paris, and Sonata in A flat Major (1853), dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck.  As arranged by Jeurissen they are captivating — haunting, extraordinary in their use of counterpoint, and harmonically complex, particularly the later work.

An 18-minute composition based on Walküre goes right into the heart of the  work, and serves not as a mere collection of tunes but, as the subtitle notes, a “paraphrase” on the life and death of Siegmund.  Two short studies of motifs from Meistersinger and Parsifal lead to a setting of some of the principle themes from the Adagio from Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, written on the occasion of Wagner’s death and deeply moving in any instance.  This working of it emphasizes its uncertainty, its harmonic diffidence and its unanswered, questioning conclusion.

This is not merely a novelty recording or an attenuation of the fanfares at Bayreuth.  It is a responsible inquiry into the intersection of the composer and this family of instruments, as well as a testament to Herman Jeurissen’s very substantial musicianship.

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