Zimmerman’s Jazz Haunted Trumpet Concerto Impresses Welsh Audience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Zimmermann: Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Lothar Koenigs (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 31.10.2014 (PCG)

Beethoven arr Weingartner – Grosse Fuge, Op.33
Zimmermann – Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen’ (1955)
Beethoven – Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op.67


This concert formed part of the imaginative ongoing series of performances by the orchestra of Welsh National Opera designed to tie in with the theme of the staged presentations they are currently giving at the Millennium Centre. The current season revolves around the idea of ‘Liberty or Death!’ and includes both Rossini’s William Tell and Moses in Egypt (in rare stage performances) plus Bizet’s Carmen. The idea is novel, interesting and rewarding, although the links between the theme and the works included here were sometimes tenuous.

 Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was extruded by the composer himself from his String Quartet No 13 when it proved to be incomprehensible to its original audiences. But he published it separately and it has long been taken into the repertory of string orchestras in a version by Felix Weingartner which added a double bass part but otherwise left the music largely unchanged. The first time I ever encountered it in a live quartet performance, many years ago, when an unexpected dramatic element was added by the first violin breaking a string, which given the strenuous nature of the writing is not incomprehensible. Here of course everything was secure; and, although it was clear that the soloistic nature of some of the writing taxed the players to their utmost, the strength of the music was undiminished even at some expense in terms of textural clarity. It was unfortunate that listeners in part of the hall were distracted in the silence before the performance began by the sound of the trumpeter practising offstage. Surely this sort of thing could be better managed?

 The international reputation of Bernd Alois Zimmermann rests largely on his opera Die Soldaten, the epitome of avant garde writing for the stage with its stupendously difficult problems both of musical performance and dramatic presentation. Welsh National Opera have toyed with the idea of staging it on a number of occasions over the years, but here we were given an earlier score by the composer which is indeed a political protest inspired by the dawning civil rights movement in America. It has a jazz-haunted feel not only in the solo part (which the programme note suggested might have been inspired by the playing of Louis Armstrong) but also in the employment of a saxophone quintet, Hammond organ and electric guitar. Reinhold Friedrich coped with the frenetic difficulties of the solo part with aplomb, and his jazzy vibrato sounded authentic as an imitation of Armstrong’s style; and the Hammond organ sounded sleazy and decadent too. In the final section, with an orchestral explosion of protest, Zimmermann really engaged with his political theme, and the result was a concerto much more approachable than much other twelve-tone music from the period – a work that thoroughly deserves its recent revival, which has been largely the doing of the soloist here. The wryly humorous Friedrich introduced his own encore, a mediaeval French dance with high notes that reached into the stratosphere, and which he described as a “cherry in the martini” to prepare the audience for their interval drinks which he thought they might need after the intellectual exercise of the Zimmermann.

 After that interval the orchestra gave us a big romantic reading of Beethoven’s Fifth, with the violins split antiphonally to left and right of the conductor in the correct fashion and all of the composer’s repeats observed, which not only helped to balance the structure of the piece but also ensured that surprises like the spectral return of the scherzo material at the end of the third movement made their proper dramatic impact. The arrangement of the strings ensured that the woodwind made their mark without any need for doubling, and the balances of the textures were ideal. The only problem arose, as so often, with the bassoon statement of the horn theme in the recapitulation of the first movement. Beethoven’s natural horns were unable to play the required notes in his day, but almost as soon as valved instruments became available conductors sought to amend the original score to provide the proper force to match the exposition statement which had been heard earlier. Modern bassoons are simply too civilised to do this, and even in these days of authenticity to the composer’s intentions many conductors still add horns for this phrase (as Barenboim did in his Proms cycle a couple of years back). As it is, the bassoon delivery of the phrase always tends to sound rather apologetic. On the other hand, Koenigs scored with his treatment of the little piccolo runs in the closing stages of the finale, sounding here cheeky and spry and not insistently strident as they so often do. The performance as a whole was driven along briskly – more like Toscanini than Klemperer – and was a thoroughly enjoyable presentation of a score that for all its innovation can present a danger of sounding hackneyed.

 One minor point: it took a full ten minutes after the Grosse Fuge to rearrange the stage for the performance of the Zimmermann concerto, with a couple of stage-hands and a rather harassed-looking librarian. Surely a company that has to cope with quick changes of scenery as part of the natural course of events could speed up these procedures?

Paul Corfield Godfrey