Trio Aenea: The Virtuoso Ophicleide

ophicleidewilbartPatrick Wilbart and Trio Ænea, The Virtuoso Ophicleide, Ricercar/Outhere Music (RIC 362), 2015.

Patrick Wibart (ophicleide), Adrian Ramon (cornet), Lucie Sansen (piano), with guests Corentin Morvan (ophicleide), Oscar Abella Martín (ophicleide), Jean-Yves Guéry (vocal chant).

For years, the early brass world has marveled at the virtuosity, on both serpent and ophicleide, of French tuba player Patrick Wibart. He has appeared in many live performances and workshops, and tantalizing excerpts of his playing have been available on YouTube for several years. But the fact he had produced no commercial recordings was a great frustration for early brass enthusiasts yearning to hear more.

Finally, Wibart’s CD, The Virtuoso Ophicleide, has been released in late 2015. Wibart has modeled this recording on the salon style of performances popular in the nineteenth century, and engaged Pierre Girod, a musicologist specializing in beau chant français (French bel canto), as his advisor on period performance practice and the salon style in particular. Girod’s recommendations influenced the tempi chosen for the selections, the number of improvisations in the piano part, and the number of improvised embellishments and cadenzas for in the solo part, which are often not represented in the original scores.

Wibert’s CD performance commences with Jules Demersseman’s Grande Fantaisie dramatique pour ophicléide et piano, which immediately establishes his sterling technique and artistic sensibility; this is exemplary ophicleide playing of the first order. The accompaniment is by pianist Lucie Sansen, who exhibits a delightfully technical fluidity. Following by the same composer is Fantaisie sur Le Désir de Beethoven pour ophicléide et piano, which was based on a slow waltz by Franz Schubert that was at the time falsely attributed to Beethoven. Fellow ophicleidist Corentin Morvan next joins Wibart in the duet Allegro Moderato from Troisième duo pour deux ophicléides by Victor Caussinus, an author of methods for ophicleides; presumably it is Morvan on the lower part, which is smoothly and gently realized, a real accomplishment on this instrument. The next four tracks are the movements from Mikaïl Glinka’s Trio pathétique, composed while he was living in Milan, and probably better known today in the arrangement for violin and cello by Mily Balakirev; besides the piano accompaniment here, Adrian Ramon joins in with his cornet.

The next selection is Kyrie eleison pour trois ophicléides, one of a set of similar pieces by ophicleide method book author Claude Philippe Projean. The original plainchant is sung a cappella by Jean-Yves Guéry, his verses interspersed with musically related interludes played by an ophicleide trio comprised of Wibart, Morvan and Oscar Martin; the 3-part polyphony has the Gregorian melody assigned to the middle line. Better known today as a tenor soloist associated with Rossini’s operas, Gilbert Duprez was also a composer who wrote the next two selections, Agnus Dei and O Salutaris, both of them liturgical works for three instruments which for the purposes of this album might was well be ophicleides; here Wibart is again joined by Morvan and Martin.

Flautist Kaspar Kummer was part of a cadre of talent at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, and he composed a set of variations for his colleague, ophicleidist Paul Eichhorn, the Variations pour l’ophicléide Op. 62, which Wibart performs next with staggering panache. It is worth noting here that Kaspar’s publisher used the French version of his first name, Gaspard, on some editions, and this was eventually abbreviated according to custom to G. Kummer, leading to the persistent confusion with another composer, bassoonist Gotthelf Heinrich Kummer, who is very often incorrectly listed as composer of this selection. Wilbart follows with another ophicleide showpiece, Air varié pour ophicléide et piano Op. 21 by Hyacinthe Klosé, popular today as a solo piece for euphonium. The recording concludes with Teutatès, Fantaisie mystique pour cornet et ophicléide, one of a series of salon works for piano and other popular instruments of the day composed by Albert Corbin.

The instruments used on this recording are all period examples. Wibart plays his B-flat ophicleide by Gautrot-Marquet et Couesnon with 11 keys, Corentin Morvan plays an 11 key Müller à Lyon Bb ophicleide, and Oscar Abella Martín plays a 10 key B-flat ophicleide by Leconte. Adrien Ramon’s cornet is by Lefèvre à Paris. The piano used by Lucie Sansen is a so-called Piano quart queue made by Sébastien Érard of Paris in 1904; it is the typical size instrument used for French musique de salon in the second part of the nineteenth century.

Besides the musical treat of the recording itself, Jérôme Lejeune contributes an extensive set of notes on the ophicleide, its situation in the musical world of the 19th Century, the methods written for the instrument, the composers and the included musical selections. Wibart also wrote two additional pages of notes from his perspective as performer, and why he finds the ophicleide to be such a worthwhile second to his main instrument, the tuba. Both writers’ notes are in French, and also translated in fluent English and German.

Prior to this new CD, the only truly virtuosic ophicleide performance extant on commercial CD was Nick Byrne’s 2007 release Back From Oblivion (at the time of this writing, Byrne’s sequel solo ophicleide CD Reverie & Romance is awaiting release by the publisher), so there is the obvious question of comparisons between that historic and groundbreaking album and Wibart’s new one. This reviewer notes that both are remarkable examples of ophicleide playing at its finest, but there are technical differences between The Virtuoso Ophicleide and Back from Oblivion that are worth commenting on here. TVO has a very different sound than BFO does, and this is not due to the performances, but rather quite clearly due to the technique of the recording engineer and the recording space. BFO has a warm ambience where the ophicleide seems to be next to the listener with the piano at the elbow of the soloist. TVO has a very clean, yet somewhat remote sound, which seems more like the ambience of a small concert hall, or indeed a salon, with the listener some distance from the performers but yet not too far away.

Wibart’s performance here is absolutely first rate, and his fellow performers are nicely complementary. Besides Wibart, special acknowledgement is due to the fine technique and appropriate period style of pianist Sansen. This is a must-have CD for all period brass enthusiasts.

-- Paul Schmidt