March 26, 2020


Ein’ feste Burg: Music of the Reformation. Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires; Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeth, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Be Still My Soul: Songs of Hope and Inspiration for Trumpet and Piano. Jason Bergman, trumpet; Jared Pierce, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Music can be a conduit for feelings of all sorts, spiritual ones definitely among them. And one need not be Lutheran, or even religious in a traditional sense, to appreciate and be moved by the way composers have written music inspired by the Protestant Reformation. A number of arrangements of that music have been gathered by the Chicago Brass and Organ Ensemble for an MSR Classics CD recorded, appropriately, at not one, not two, but three different churches. Yet, again, one need not be an adherent of traditional organized religion to enjoy this material, which spans some 400 years – or rather hopscotches the centuries, since the works are not arranged chronologically. The first piece offered is the most-recent: Rejouissance by James Curnow (born 1943), a fantasia on the best-known Lutheran hymn, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. Curnow’s is an interesting work, respectful of its source, contemporary in some techniques (such as syncopation) and traditional in others (such as a warmly lyrical middle section). It is followed by the oldest material on the CD: Three Becker Psalms by Heinrich Schütz, arranged for brass quartet by Gary Olson. This brief proffers polyphony before the disc continues with its most-featured composer, Bach. Five of his works are heard here: the organ chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659; an organ-and-brass-quintet version of the opening chorus and chorale from his cantata (BWV 80) on Ein’ feste Burg; and Three Lutheran Chorales, BWV 680, 687 and 651. The last of these, inspired by Komm, Heiliger Geist, is a highly contrapuntal fantasia that compares interestingly with Curnow’s work. Bach’s pieces are followed on the CD by a rarity: the Kirchliche Fest-Ouverture (“Ecclesiastical Festival Overture”) by Otto Nicolai, who is known nowadays almost solely for the frothy The Merry Wives of Windsor. This overture, written for chorus and full orchestra, has none of the lightness and flippancy of the overture to that opera, being hyper-serious, staid and stately as well as celebratory. Its central theme is, yes, Ein’ feste Burg, and the Craig Garner arrangement heard on this disc brings out the joyous portions of the material to particularly good effect. Nicolai’s work is followed by two by Mendelssohn: his Organ Sonata No. 6, an impressive and too-little-known work showcasing not only the composer’s spiritual side but also the performance skills for which he was well-known in his lifetime; and the introduction and finale from Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation,” whose last movement raises Ein’ feste Burg to very great heights indeed. The brass-and-timpani-heavy arrangement here – another by Craig Garner – does not really show the music at its best: it provides more grandiosity than grandeur. Mendelssohn’s symphony is a work that, like Nicolai’s overture, really does sound better in its original form. However, Stephen Squires certainly elicits excellent playing from the ensemble, here and throughout the disc, and organists Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeth contribute impressively to the overall sound. The CD is, at its heart, an experience mixing the serious with the festive, reaching across religions and speaking to many forms of spirituality and belief.

     The communication is considerably more personal on another MSR Classics release, this one featuring Jason Bergman on trumpet and Jared Pierce on piano – plus, on specific tracks, Michelle Kesler (cello), Brian Bowman (euphonium), Alexander Woods (violin), and Brian Blanchard (horn). The 14 works here come from various religious traditions and various forms of music, and the arrangements are designed to highlight the trumpet while giving complementary and supporting roles to the piano and, in four of the works, to other instruments. The basic material will be more or less familiar, and more or less congenial, depending on each listener’s musical and spiritual tastes. For example, the Kevin McKee arrangement of Amazing Grace incorporates newly written material that may or may not add to the work’s effect, depending on one’s viewpoint. Two pieces based on classical works – Be Still, My Soul, which is built on a modified Sibelius symphonic theme, and Der Engel from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder – sound somewhat peculiar as arranged here, but are presented in heartfelt fashion that is emotionally satisfying. A Simple Song by Leonard Bernstein, which comes from the composer’s Mass, is partly popular in sound and partly more classical in orientation – but in this case, its dual characteristics are in the original work, and Bergman and Pierce handle them well. John Rutter’s What Sweeter Music benefits from including a euphonium, which gives the work more heft than it would otherwise have. Joseph Palmer’s arrangement of Just a Closer Walk with Thee turns the traditional song into jazz. As these examples indicate, the disc as a whole is very much a mixed bag, musically speaking, with Bergman’s fine and sensitive playing and Pierce’s able support providing more continuity than do the pieces themselves. This CD comes across as a highly individual spiritual statement in which the performers share their feelings and hopes through music that comes in many forms and from many directions – not a thoroughly convincing musical whole, perhaps, but one informed throughout by sensitivity to an underlying inspirational message that music of all types is uniquely able to convey.

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