An apt, if not entirely likely, candidate for exposing curious fans to this side of classical music.
Contemporary classical music, especially those schools descended from serialism and the avant-garde, is an alienating enough world. Even more so when you continue to narrow this scope into a realm of composers and pieces that a casual fan has likely never heard of, and even deeper into the overlooked ensemble of a brass quintet. Schwerpunkt, a new release from the German quintet Ensemble Schwerpunkt, by all accounts should be a release for the heads. Still, the strength of the playing, the repertoire choices and the recording quality of this album makes it an apt—if not entirely likely—candidate for exposing curious fans to this side of classical music.
Schwerpunkt makes abundantly clear the quintet’s high-level playing abilities, both as individuals and, more importantly, as a group. While the group do show their knack for slower playing throughout, much of this release features material that showcases pure technicality—both in a traditional sense and in a new language built out of extended techniques. Benedict Mason’s “Brass Quintet” is the most readily fiery composition, with Ensemble Schwerpunkt jackhammering off of each other. Jarkko Hartikainen’s “Radix” uses breath sounds and clicking to offer the most sonically radical moment here.
A further strength of Schwerpunkt is its commitment to a recorded medium. This type of classical music is almost exclusively written for live performance, and the problem of how to translate works between these formats has long plagued composers, performers and label executives. Rather than attempt to simulate a concert hall, in which sound comes barreling down on the audience from a raised stage, Ensemble Schwerpunkt choose to mix their recording as if the listener is sitting in the middle of the group, staring the tuba player in the face. It’s a somewhat atypical choice, but one that pays off well.
All of the already noted strengths of the ensemble’s playing is only furthered by Schwerpunkt’s pristine presentation. The album showcases an unfathomably large dynamic range, best presented in its opening track, Vassos Nicolaou’s “Spielwechsler. Versteckt.” Most of the piece is played in a crisp, barely audible muted timbre, and when the quintet finally open up into a natural sound in the final minutes, it’s comparatively flooring—headphone users be warned. Luciano Berio’s “Call (St. Louis Fanfare)” is, at its core, a punchy and brash piece of music. Ensemble Schwerpunkt play it especially bright, and the loud, dry recording sound only furthers this. The blinding sheen of brass in the summer sun is nearly visible.
While all of this might be overwrought praise for the technical aspects of an album, a failure to approach these characteristics with the same care as Ensemble Schwerpunkt has mildly diminished the quality of what could have been fantastic classical releases. Ensemble Schwerpunkt are prime players and interpreters of this difficult music, but the real key to their success on this specific album comes from their appreciation for the form of the album itself.