Friday 4 June 2010

Hardenberger, Harding and HK Gruber round out my LSO season to perfection

Actually, the London Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season doesn't finish for another month, something that feels odd coming from Scotland, where everyone finished weeks ago.  Well, I say finished; the SCO, for example, is busily touring round all the bits of Scotland they never normally get to, and a very good thing too.  There are other things I'd go to if I could - Sunday's Adès concert, for instance - but I can't, so Thursday marked my final trip to the Barbican to hear them before next season kicks off.

Two things in particular drew me to the programme.  The first was Dvořák's 7th symphony.  I love Dvořák, and especially his symphonies, and they don't seem to crop up on the programme nearly as often as I would like (the New World excepted, which arguably suffers from the opposite problem).  The second was the presence of Håkan Hardenberger to play a trumpet concerto.  We always hear violin and piano concerti, but brass ones are much more of a rarity and, as a sometime brass player myself, they are therefore not to be missed when they do crop up.

The first things that spring to mind when one thinks of trumpet concerti are probably the likes of the Haydn, the Hummel or possibly the Neruda.  Hardenberger was taking on something much more ambitious: Aerial, composed for him and for the Proms in 1999 by HK Gruber.  Now, I've only come across Gruber once before, when he conducted the opening concert of the 2008 Edinburgh festival, which wasn't an unqualified success.  Composition, though, is quite another matter.

In the programme note Hardenberger describes giving Gruber "all the tricks" such as multiphonics (singing and blowing at once).  The composer came back with what might almost be described as a triple concerto where the soloist must alternate between a regular C trumpet, piccolo trumpet and a cow horn!  Then there are mutes and moments when the soloist is called upon to play by manipulation of the tuning slides.  A glorious technical exercise then, and one which, in the hands of Hardenberger, has a fine exponent.

But it isn't simply an endless flow of one clever thing you can do with a trumpet (or, for that matter, a cow horn) after another.  No, it is a genuinely affecting and beguiling composition.  Put another way, my first thought was '"I hope to goodness he's recorded this." (and fortunately he has, with Eötvös and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Spotify link here).  Lyrical, whistful, almost, with the first part having something of a film noir quality about it, reminiscent of Miles Davis's great soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud.  This is followed by a more tempestuous and flamboyant second section, entitled Gone Dancing, which builds to a wonderful, almost Haydn-esque musical joke as the soloist wanders back into the orchestra and blows his final notes, almost with contempt, into the open piano.

Then there is Gruber's clever and subtle orchestration.  Not for this the whir-plonk and kitchen sink orchestration of some modern compositions.  No, here cow horn blends perfectly with vibraphone.  It was, quite simply, glorious and worth the price of admission alone.  It was also an excellent demonstration of why we should hear trumpet soloists more often.  When, I wonder, is someone going to bring Tine Thing Helseth over to the UK?  Scots take note that Hardenberger visits the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra next March for the Haydn concerto.

One final note, before moving on to rest of the concert.  I heard Hardenberger a little over a year ago with the RSNO playing a concerto by Schwertsik.  I wasn't very impressed and couldn't understand the "greatest trumpet soloist today" epithet that The Times bestowed upon him and which kicks off his biography.  Of course, that wasn't the greatest work and for various complicated reasons the concert took place in the Festival Theatre, a venue whose acoustic is not remotely suited to orchestral concerts.  I still don't like expressions containing "greatest", but this concert does put Hardenberger among the very finest trumpeters it has been my privilege to hear.

The concert had opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.  This seems to crop on the concert programme quite a lot these days and nice though it is, I never find it completely satisfying - there are better curtain raisers.  Harding took a generally slow and tender view but built plenty of power to the big climaxes.  The orchestra played well for him, and he judged the ending superbly, fading away powerfully to nothing.

The Dvořák rounded off the evening.  Harding turned in a performance that was solid and enjoyable, if not necessarily great.  His take was generally quite heavy, though he unleashed frenzied climaxes, particularly at the ends of movements and especially and blazingly at the end.  And yet, perhaps because I've been spoilt by the recent superb recording with the Philharmonia, there didn't seem to be the boundless energy the octogenarian Charles Mackerras manages to find, the music didn't dance in the same way.  The ensemble playing, while fine, didn't seem quite so tight as in the first half.

The only other niggles are administrative.  I'd left it slightly late booking my ticket and was therefore down near the front, far off to one side, giving a different and interesting view.  I'd have preferred a seat in the circle but was told these were all gone, something I find difficult to reconcile with the large number of empty seats I could see there (it appeared the balcony might have been closed).  Perhaps the presence of the Gruber put people off (certainly it didn't seem to be the cup of tea of the gentleman next to me) - more fool them.

More interestingly, during the Tristan I heard unexpected noises.  It took me a while to twig that it was Harding grunting, at times almost singing.  Of course, various conductors do so (glorious John Barbirolli was notorious for it, as is Colin Davis today, and I have a DVD of Giulini doing the Verdi Requiem where, at the very least, he's mouthing the words).  Apparently Harding does so too, but I've never been sat close enough to notice.

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