Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Festmusik: The gorgeous textures of Richard Strauss writing for brass stand out on this disc from Onyx Brass and friends inspired by a family cache of letters

Richard Strauss Festmusik der Stadt Wien, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, Frank; Onyx Brass, John Wilson; Chandos

Richard Strauss Festmusik der Stadt Wien, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, Frank; Onyx Brass, John Wilson; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare, late outing into brass music by Richard Strauss partnered with an intriguing programme of arrangements on this imaginative new disc.

Whilst 19th and early 20th-century composers of the Austro-German tradition wrote terrifically for brass in their orchestral music, works for brass ensemble are scarce to non-existent, at least by well known composers. Which makes Richard Strauss' 1943 work Festmusik der Stadt Wien all the more surprising. It is a terrific piece, written for an ensemble consisting of ten trumpets, five trombones, two bass trombones, two tubas and timpani, but at ten minutes long it leaves the performers wondering, what else to put on the disc. 
 
For this new disc from Onyx Brass, Festmusik: A Legacy on Chandos the brass ensemble has mined one of their founders' own family history to combine the Strauss with arrangements of more Strauss performed by an ensemble made up of Onyx Brass and guest players including Septura conducted by John Wilson, plus arrangements of works by Robert Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, and Robert Franz performed by just the five members of Onyx Brass.

Onyx Brass and guests including members of Septura, conductor John Wilson, during the recording of the Richard Strauss' Festmusik (Photo Andrew Sutton)
Onyx Brass and guests including members of Septura, conductor John Wilson, during the recording of the Richard Strauss' Festmusik (Photo Andrew Sutton)

David Gordon-Shute, one of the founders of Onyx Brass, explains in his booklet note that the album arose partly because of a family cache of old letters. His grandmother Anne-Marie, her sister Hilde and Hilde's husband Heinz had fled Germany in the 1930s like many other Jewish families. When Heinz died in the 1990s he left Gordon-Shute a cache of letters, not personal ones but semi-business from composers including those on the disc. A postcard from Richard Strauss in the collection was discovered to refer to a pair of Strauss' choral pieces, Zwei Gesänge, which had been arranged for Onyx Brass in the early days of its existence. So the recording pairs these two with Strauss' Festmusik, and then mines works by composers also in the letter collection, arranged for brass quintet. So we have Schumann's Impromptus über ein Thema von Clara Wieck, Op. 5 (1833), Brahms' song Ich schwing’ mein Horn ins Jammertal, Op. 41 No. 1 (1861 – 62), Mendelssohn's chorus Die Frauen und die Sänger (1845), Rubinstein's piano Nocturne, Op. 71 No. 1 (1867), and Robert Franz's song Frühlingsblick, Op. 52 No. 6 (1884).



Strauss' Festmusik was written in gratitude for having been awarded Vienna's Beethoven Prize. By the time he came to write it in 1943, Strauss' relationship with the Nazis was sour indeed with worries about his Jewish daughter-in-law and her sons. But Vienna’s Gauleiter, Baldur von Schirach, was a long-time admirer of the composer so Strauss felt somewhat more comfortable in Vienna. The work was commissioned for the Viennese Corp of Trumpeters, whose players were drawn from three of the city’s orchestras which perhaps explains the music's complexity and challenge. It is, however, a terrific piece, and the players on this disc do it full justice.

It starts out wonderfully mellow late Strauss, but there are more complex passages and some terrifically festal writing too, yet overall the piece is subtler than the bombast of the commission might suggest and perhaps reflects Strauss love of the sort of intricate textures you can create with multiple voices of the same instruments (as in Metamorphosen).

The arrangements for brass quintet on the album are an imaginative solution to the problems of what to programme and thanks to Gordon-Shute's family history they form an intriguing group. The sign of a good arrangement or transcription is that the new piece is convincing in its new home, so that for these pieces to really succeed we need to believe that they are brass music composed by these 19th century composers.

I am not sure what Schumann's brass music would sound-like, if he'd ever got round to writing some. The Impromtus are all short and completely intriguing, imaginative arrangements which however have the rather unfortunate effect of reminding me, a non-brass player, of some of the lesser brass band repertoire. There is something rather chorale-like about the Brahms, perhaps the reason it was chosen, whilst the Mendelssohn has a rather delightful hunting feel to it. With the Rubenstein we are sort of back in the world of Schumann, perhaps with some spikier corners to the harmony, whilst the Robert Frank forms an engaging end to the group. Do the arrangements work? They are all senstively played and imaginatively done, but not every work makes you think that the composer had written it for brass, or am I being too demanding? But all are sensitively played, and the five performers make a strong case for these borrowed works.

The final pieces on the disc return to Richard Strauss, his Zwei Gesänge written in 1897 are a rare excursion into choral music for the composer. Setting words by the German romantic poets Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Rückert these are not motets but might be regarded as part-songs except that no-one writes part-songs for 16-part choir, which perhaps explains their relative rarity even in their original versions. Here we hear them in new arrangements for sixteen-part brass ensemble, four trumpets, two flugelhorns, two French horns, four trombones, two bass trombones and two tubas. Both are completely gorgeous and full of complex Straussian textures, sensitively played by the sixteen players who are clearly relishing the luxury of the sound. Rather naughtily, I did wonder what Strauss' Deutsche Motette would sound like in such an arrangement?

This is a wonderfully imaginative disc, the performance of the Strauss Festmusik is superbly spot-one, mixing bravura with sensitivity and a little bombast, whilst the two Strauss arrangements really make you realise what a brass ensemble like this can do. The whole is cleverly put together, giving us a refreshing different take on the challenge of pairing the Festmusik up for something and making a lovely tribute to David Gordon-Chute's great-aunt and great-uncle.

Checking the catalogue, there do not seem to be that many recordings of the work at all, unsurprising given its requirements, challenge and difficulty working out what to programme with it. The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (on of the inspirations behind the founding of Onyx Brass) recorded the piece but it is currently only available in a box set of all Strauss' tone poems and concertos. This only makes the new recording all the more welcome, as it is so superbly played and imaginatively programmed.

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) - Festmusik der Stadt Wien, TrV 286 (1942 – 43) [10:48]
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) - Impromptus über ein Thema von Clara Wieck, Op. 5 (1833) [19:44]
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) - Ich schwing’ mein Horn ins Jammertal, Op. 41 No. 1 (1861 – 62) [2:22]
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) - Die Frauen und die Sänger (1845) [3:30]
Anton Grigor’yevich Rubinstein (1829 – 1894) - Nocturne, Op. 71 No. 1 (1867) [5:50]
Robert Franz (1815 – 1892) - Frühlingsblick, Op. 52 No. 6 (1884) [2:27]
Richard Strauss - Zwei Gesänge, Op. 34, TrV 182 (1897) [22:00]
Onyx Brass with guest players including members of Septura
John Wilson (conductor)
Recorded at the Church of Saint Augustine, Kilburn, London; 3 & 4 October 2020
CHANDOS CHSA 5284 1CD [67.25]



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