Recording of July 1988: Baroque Music for Trumpets

788rotm.jpgWynton Marsalis: Baroque Music for Trumpets
Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Trumpets, RV 537; Telemann: Concertos for 3 Trumpets, in B-flat and D; Pachelbel: Canon for 3 Trumpets (arr. Leppard); M. Haydn: Concerto for Trumpet; Biber: Sonata for 8 Trumpets & Orchestra
Wynton Marsalis, piccolo trumpets; Raymond Leppard, English Chamber Orchestra
CBS M 42478 (LP), MK 42478 (CD). Bud Graham & Steven Epstein, engs.; Steven Epstein, prod. DDD. TT: 47:18

There are very few musically satisfying compositions for solo trumpet. A great deal of the standard repertoire is Baroque, and that primarily of the Paradestuck (parade, or showoff piece) school. Of Wynton Marsalis's five Masterworks releases, at least three fall into this category, the present one most of all. There are gimmicks galore here, of composition, arrangement, and recording—Wynton Marsalis, genius of all trades, overdubbing himself ad infinitum through digital wizardry. The fact is, given the music, such an approach is probably the most appropriate; certainly no one listens to the Biber Sonata for 8 Trumpets for profound spiritual insight, and none of this music was written to stretch the boundaries of anything but the trumpeter's chops. In the recording of such antiphonal works, the 18th century's version of "special effects" or "stereo spectaculars," it makes sense that the soloists seem as telepathically in tune with one another's playing as possible. So why not use the same single player?

Appropriately, then, if unfortunately, one is more impressed by the virtuosities of soloist, arranger, and producer than by any substantial musical content. (Aficionados of audio a la Cecil B. DeMille will be reminded of CBS's famous LP of Gabrielli antiphonal brass music of 20 or so years ago.) Just as appropriately, Marsalis's awesome technique defies nitpicking in its effortless control of tone, dynamics, and attack. This is particularly evident in the two Telemann concerti, musically the most worthwhile works recorded here: the confident legatos, precise attacks, and astonishing tonal consistency build up a tension of waiting for the false step that never comes. My only complaints are of Marsalis's too-Romantic vibrato and often overly sweet tone.

Telemann continues to astound me with the never-ending inventiveness of his compositions; the finale of the concerto in D sports a series of rising trumpet fanfares as stirring in their heroics as they are unexpected. On the other hand, Raymond Leppard's arrangement for three trumpets of Pachelbel's famous you-know-what is merely a frame on which to hang an otherwise unrelated grab-bag of trumpet exercises; god knows it isn't very musical. Leppard here takes a Romantic, Jean-Francois Paillard approach, but the ECO lacks the richness, or sheer numbers of strings, to support such an interpretation. It is the only extended Adagio here, however, and Marsalis can play with his own sonorities to an extent not afforded him elsewhere on the disc.

Though not, in itself, as substantial a work as either of the Telemanns, the Michael Haydn concerto stands out for several reasons: it is the only work for single trumpet included here; it is slower-paced, lacking an opening Allegro; and it is the album's only Classical work. This adds up to an impression of a demure, artless maid among be-ribboned Baroque bombshells, and reminds anew of how thorough a revolution Classicism must have seemed to the 18th century. By virtue of its relative understatement in such a context, it steals the show. Also, and far from incidentally, it is the one place where Marsalis seems to concentrate solely on statements musical, not technical or sonic.

But the Biber Sonata for 8 Trumpets requires an inkspill of a different sort. The music is as much a novelty as the studio gymnastics themselves. Not content to let well enough alone, Raymond Leppard has rearranged this ungainly little 5½-minute work into an antiphonal fantasy for no less than 24 trumpets, in three ranks of eight each, at three different depths in the hall. After orchestra and Marsalis recorded the piece "live" with the first-trumpet part, 23 additional takes were required, with Marsalis moving a few more feet to his left for each of the first rank of eight, then back behind the orchestra (or where it had been) for the next eight, and yet further back for the final rank. The venue for all takes was North London's St. Barnabas Church; the orchestral sessions used five main mikes (omnis all) and one spot for the soloist. (Simplified versions of this technique were used for all the multi-trumpet works.) To CBS's credit, a total of only six spots was used for the 23 solo takes, one for each quartet of trumpets (right and left front, R&L middle, R&L rear).

Marsalis, recording with headphones in the very reverberant acoustic, had to play slightly before the prerecorded music to match entrances when playing at the greater distances from the orchestra. Exhausting work. Notes, seating charts, and miking maps are included with the recording.

It all sounds fine on paper, and it actually works. The illusion is convincing, and complete; given the single trumpeter, ambience, acoustics, and soundstage are as realistic as one could expect (though, throughout the disc, the center does tend to drop out of the soundstage; this could be due to Leppard's odd orchestra layout, with only timpani dead-center, directly in front of the conductor). All in all, these do sound like choirs of trumpets playing together in a reverberant hall, albeit choirs of trumpets with an unprecedented unanimity of tone and interpretation. If the HF busyness of the recording is reminiscent of too many of CBS's past failures in this area, and considerably greater than on Marsalis's last Masterworks release (of music for trumpet and band: Carnaval, CBS M/MK 42137), remember that you are listening to many, many piccolo trumpets in a reverberant space; such music is often as hard on the ears in person as many will find it on record. The CD is recommended here; the LP, though well-mastered enough, is euphonically too dark for this many trumpets; the higher harmonics simply do not sing as they should—and do—on the DDD CD.

Steven Epstein should be commended for the trouble he has taken to create a realistic, believable recording where many other producers—most notoriously, his own predecessors at CBS—would have taken the easy, panpotted way out. There's hope yet.—Richard Lehnert

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COMMENTS
DetroitVinylRob's picture

Richard,

Nice review and interesting insight on the recording process, thanks. I was looking forward to this title and it being available on vinyl yet, you communicate that it is "euphonically too dark for this many trumpets" which is disappointing to say the least. What would be the cause of this... D to A transfer not being given the care by Sony that is necessary???

Com'on SONY!

Happy Listening!

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