European Musicians and Steele-Perkins United in Musical Excellence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Handel, Mozart, Haydn: Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), European Union Chamber Orchestra / Hans-Peter Hofmann (director), Great Hall, Dartington, 16.4. 2014. (PRB)

European-Union Chamber Orchestar with Crispian Steele Perkins credit Philip R Buttall
European Union Chamber Orchestra with Crispian Steele-Perkins

Handel: Trumpet Suite from ‘The Water Music’
Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K.525
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Mozart: Adagio in F, K.411
Haydn: Symphony No 44 in E minor, ‘Trauer’


 The European Union Chamber Orchestra gave its first concerts back in 1981, and soon gained a worldwide reputation as a musical ambassador for the European Union itself. From 1992 to 2004 assistance from the European Commission enabled the orchestra to make intercontinental tours covering South and East Asia, North, South and Central America, the Middle East and, of course, Europe where, since 2005, this has been the main focus of its activities.

Whatever is currently happening in the European Union, there is no doubt that, musically-speaking, the Chamber Orchestra that bears its name still presents a strong and unified whole.

Directed from the violin by German Konzertmeister Hans-Peter Hofmann, tonight’s nineteen players were drawn from a number of different countries, in particular from some of the newer EU member states.

The orchestra opened its recital in front of a large audience in the glorious setting and acoustic of the Great Hall, with the Trumpet Suite from Handel’s ‘Water Music’, and where the performance, and indeed  the whole programme’s immediacy were so significantly enhanced by all the players, where feasible, adopting the standing position and by the soloist playing from memory. The far greater natural projection this so easily achieved was a real plus point here

The history of the work is well documented. When Handel moved to London in 1713, he quickly found favour with Queen Anne, and when she died a year later, she was succeeded by the Elector of Hanover, with whom the composer of course already had connections back in Germany. As a vigorous impresario, ever-moved by commercial considerations, extravagance was in Handel’s blood, so naturally he relished writing music for some fifty musicians to perform in a barge on the River Thames in 1717. The Elector, now King George I, was so delighted with the work that he asked the musicians to perform it twice before, and once after supper.

Historians agree that each run-through lasted more than an hour, but are not quite sure which movements were actually selected. As such, trumpeter, Crispian Steele-Perkins, has merely sought to follow the pattern of the time, by compiling his own short suite from Handel’s music, and especially those particularly well-suited to his solo instrument. Together, orchestra and soloist gave a reading full of vitality and sufficiently ornamented for the style, While the combined forces could certainly produce a large sound of almost symphonic proportions in Steele-Perkins’s four-movement selection – Overture – Air – Minuet 1 & 2 – Hornpipe – the dynamics were finely tempered to create the illusion that we were here listening to a period-instrument ensemble.

Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik drew some thoroughly idiomatic phrasing and an impressive dynamic range, moving seamlessly from Baroque string-writing to the style of the classical period. The opening Allegro was despatched with business-like precision, and followed by a tenderly-felt Romance. The Menuetto showed good pace, with effective contrast in the Trio section, and the ever-familiar Rondo Finale was given with sufficient zest as to breathe some welcome freshness into the reading.

Steele-Perkins was actually born in Exeter, some thirty miles away from the Dartington Estate, and the county town of Devon. Now celebrating his seventieth birthday in 2014, on returning to the platform, he took time out to share with the audience the fact that, a good many years beforehand, he had stood on the very same stage as a member of the County Youth Orchestra. He then proceeded to introduce Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with an informal, yet most informative few words about the keyed trumpet he had with him on the stand, and similar to the one used by Anton Weidinger – trumpeter at the Viennese court – for whom the composer wrote the work in 1796. Steele-Perkins resorted to using a modern valved-instrument for the ensuing performance, as the keyed trumpet on display was still in the process of being renovated. Despite Haydn’s championing of the instrument, a contemporary report referred to its sound as being like that of a ‘demented oboe’ – possibly alluding to the fact the holes were felt to detract from the otherwise brilliant tone of the instrument – and it never gained any long-lasting success.

There was, however, no lack of brilliance in Steele-Perkins’s simply first-rate performance, where he combined great articulation and agility in the outer movements with a warm, yet not over-sentimentalised tone in the central Andante.

Mozart’s Andante in F was originally composed for two clarinets and three basset-horns, but was rarely given because of its somewhat unusual scoring. A version for string quintet or, as here, for string orchestra, subsequently allowed the work to be far more frequently programmed, just as the Serenade in C minor – originally for woodwind – also has an alternative version, which Mozart himself similarly arranged for strings.

The Andante provided a refreshing aperitif before a highly-charged, yet totally disciplined performance of Haydn’s ‘Trauer’ Symphony, where all the drama of the score, a work from the composer’s ‘Sturm and Drang’ period, with its somewhat reactionary emotional extremes, was played out with great panache yet real sensitivity, a testament both to the assured direction from the front, and the noteworthy response and tautness of the ensemble itself.

With the jovial finale of Mozart’s Cassation in G as a generous encore, this superb evening of music in fact had far more positive things to say about the EU, than all the current political spin or internecine shenanigans.

Philip R Buttall





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