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GLINKA Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla (arr. Roberts).
Sextet in E flat minor, Op. 30.
Gopak of the Young Ukrainians from 'Sorochintsky Fair'. Pictures at an Exhibition
(both arr. Roberts).
Fine Arts Brass Ensemble.
Nimbus NI5645 [DDD] [65'37].

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This is a thoughtfully-programmed, cleanly recorded disc which is guaranteed to bring much pleasure. The three arrangements (by Stephen Roberts, the horn player of the ensemble) are models of ingenuity and demonstrate a knowledge of brass writing that only an experienced player can bring.

The Glinka which opens this disc is a completely successful virtuoso show-piece. The Fine Arts Ensemble seems to relish demonstrating its abilities - ensemble is tight, tonguing is clean (even in the most rapidly articulated passages) and there is an air of confidence about the whole. Oskar Böhme's Sextet dates from around 1906 (in keeping with the Russian theme of this disc, Böhme was principal trumpet of the Mariinsky Theatre from 1903 to 1921). The Ensemble avoid all sense of over-sentimentality in the slow movement (it could so easily sound hackneyed) and ooze charm in the finale. They seem out to prove that this is a piece deserving more outings. It will be finding its way to my player again, certainly.

Alexander Alabiev (1787-1851) remains best known for his song, The Nightingale (recorded by, amongst others, Lily Pons and Amelita Galli-Curci). His single-movement brass quintet of 1847 was one of the earliest to be written for valved instruments and is a work of great charm, relished with nimble passage-work and confident swagger on this occasion - though this is not to deny the intimacy created in the slow introduction. Mussorgsky's Gopak of the Young Ukrainians is an enjoyable, short romp, but it is after all, Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' that is emblazoned over the cover of the disc and which takes a full half of the disc's playing time. A brass arrangement sits somewhere between the single-instrument piano original and the well known Ravel orchestration. Without a full symphony orchestra to draw on, the arranger has to use all means at his disposal to achieve the necessary variety, and Roberts succeeds fully. Helpfully, Nimbus not only track each movement individually, but also provide descriptions of the original paintings to help us along our tour. There is much delicacy as well as grandeur in this performance - 'The Old Castle' is marvellously melancholy, 'Tuileries' is a lesson on how to make brass instruments 'dance', whilst the muted antics of 'The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells' are marvellously witty. Perhaps the women in Limoges market could have chattered in a bit less civilised a fashion, but the dissonances in 'Catacombs' are fully realised and the virtuosity of 'The Hut on Fowl's Legs' is stunning. Of course one misses the great percussion strokes in the 'Great Gate', but this is a slight cavil. Throughout this particular gallery there is plenty of character, a description which seems apt for this disc as a whole. Strongly recommended.


Colin Clarke