Eric VLOEIMANS & Holland Baroque: Carrousel – Channel

Eric VLOEIMANS & Holland Baroque: Carrousel – Channel Classics 39817, 60:18 (6/16/17) *****:

An astonishing collaboration that mines the many layers of the Baroque with thrilling sense of discovery.

The Holland Baroque Orchestra has an original take on what the Baroque offers in terms of musical possibilities. While other groups diligently research new repertoire in libraries and museums, this ensemble seeks to connect with modern perspectives and practices. The result is a profusion of surprises. In Sounds and Clouds, Vivaldi shares the stage with an homage by avant-garde composer Hosokawa in what sounds like a Japanese dream of the the Italian Baroque. Another risky pairing has contemporary composer Reinbert de Leeuw adjacent to and thinking his way through the implications of Bach. On a third recording, numerous percussionists do battle with a baroque concerto in theatrical display of the era’s rhythmic vitality,

All of these productions are first rate in concept and execution, but they are surpassed by a crossover (for lack of a better word) concept that involves improvising trumpeter Eric Vloeimans. We met this artist on these pages not long ago. Old, New and Blue finds him offering fresh treatments of Bach, Josquin, Gombert and Tallis as well as original material. We were swept away by the tone and improvisational vigor (and impish humor) of his horn and no less by the dazzling arrangements. It should be noted that no one on the planet can play more softly.

Carrousel is the third such collaboration between HB and Vloeimans and may be the best yet. It is weighted more towards original charts, but again, everything breathes the spirit of the Baroque while simultaneously exhibiting a freewheeling  originality. The arrangements on every piece are attributed to either J or T Steenbrink and are exquisite, alert to all the timbral nuances of original instruments, plucked or bowed.

The program begins modestly with Nana, a delicate theme of contemplative plucking as if we were in world of the utmost fragility, and the aim were not to trample or break anything. Having barely introduced himself, Vloeimans asserts more on Armin. Against a quavering and very Bachian dark string pulse, the trumpet makes a jagged downward statement which evokes a judgement. This is answered by a mournful plea, perhaps a attempt at exculpation. The coaxing strings suggest clemency in the end. The piece has everything that this collaboration does best: narrative and drama, dynamic range, and the confidence to combine baroque and bebop sensibilities.

Fatima leaves behind pulse and harmonic argument for a deeply felt plangency. The lutenist wails on the oud while the trumpet weeps tears. When the deep pizzicato enters, the horn finds its way into an affecting melody that captures an encompassing and collective sadness. There is much beauty here, and I marvel at the tonal splendor of the trumpet throughout. Chorizo immediately raises spirits with a folky and buoyant subject propelled with cheerful percussion.

The Purcellian Tune captures that composer’s distinct harmonic language, but it lacks the narrative tautness of the preceding compositions. Monseigneur Charles breaks out of a pensive introduction into a bright, medieval dance, but surprises abound. The orchestra revels in comic and folk gestures, ranging from mariachi schtick to roiling Mingus-like chorus jubilation. Neither classical nor so called jazz is ever this fun, so this music must be neither.

Nothing we have heard so far prepares us for the supreme beauty of the Buxtehude arrangement. By now, I suspect that the real genius behind these arrangements is connected to the name J. Steenbrick. She was the composer of one track on the last Vloeiman outing, but here there is a consistency in the orchestration that makes that five-star album seem ragged.

Mumu brings out the Helmond Vocal Ensemble for the simplest anthem-like piece; if it was at the end, one might consider it a benediction or yogic sivasana.

Ocean of Petals follows the Passacaille and employs the same repeated chord progression, first in a polyphonic weave of tenderness, and then in a boisterous chorus with each instrument crying out in its own language in a delirious Schreierei. It is a great whirling dance and a fresh take on the ancient  form.

Bach, heavily featured (and deconstructed in interesting ways) in Old, New & Blue, arrives only on the last piece and is played straight at first. It staggers the imagination to think that Eric has the entire Bach “real book” of 300 chorales to explore in the future. Here, there is quite a bit of fooling around with a organ, xylophone, and a wonky accompaniment, which we might have expected given the title, Carrousel; In the end, the chorale is reaffirmed, and the trumpet plays the whole notes with decorum, serving to heighten the humor.

This is a wondrous production and not to be missed. It will be hard for other adventurous Baroque ensembles to catch up on the large lead that Holland Baroque have established for creative fun in music. Hats off to Mr. Vloeimans, the Steenbrinks, and their talented cohorts.

—Fritz Balwit

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