United Kingdom Brahms, Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven: Jason Evans & Alistair Mackie (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christian Kluxen (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 6.2.2015 (CS)
Brahms: (arr. Weismann): Liebeslieder-Walzer Op.52 (excerpts)
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in Eb
Vivaldi: (arr. Bach): Concerto in D Major BWV 972
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in Eb Major (Eroica)
Trumpet concertos do not appear with great frequency on concert programmes, and the appearance of Tine Thing Helseth with the Marlowe Theatre’s resident orchestra, the Philharmonia, must have been keenly anticipated by the regular Canterbury audience. However, in late-January the Norwegian trumpeter announced that regrettably she had been forced to cancel her engagements for the next few months ‘on doctor’s orders’. What may have been a disappointment for those hoping to hear Helseth – who specialises in the Classical repertoire and was named a ‘Superstar of Tomorrow’ by BBC Music Magazine in 2011 – also provided a great opportunity for the two Principal Trumpets of the Philharmonia, Jason Evans and Alistair Mackie, to emerge from the brass ranks and step into the spotlight.
Performing Haydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in Eb, Jason Evans – who is one of the youngest principal trumpets in the UK, and indeed, internationally – presented a relaxed and responsive demeanour. Written in 1796 at the behest of Haydn’s friend, the Viennese trumpeter Anton Weidinger, who was frustrated by the limitations of the natural trumpet, the work is – like Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – a composer’s attempt to show what a new instrument could achieve.
There was an easy buoyancy to the exposition introduction from strings and double woodwind, and Evans’s opening phrases had a warm expansiveness and exhibited the trumpeter’s keen sense of Classical phrasing. Large leaps were clean; technical passagework was crisply executed. I found Evans’s range of colour especially engaging: at times the silkiness was as slippery as a clarinet, elsewhere there was – through the flashing arpeggio passages – a brassy brightness. In the second movement Andante the low register assumed a lovely rich, nasal reedy quality, and Evans produced persuasively lyrical playing complemented by some lovely flute solos (Thomas Hancox) and a beautifully pulsing string foundation. There was plenty of stylish panache in the Finale, enhanced by the sure sense of structure offered by timpanist Andrew Smith. Conductor Christian Kluxen balanced the dialogue between soloist and ensemble effectively, and the players of the Philharmonia offered polished support.
Alistair Mackie took over as soloist in J.S. Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D, which was transcribed by J.S. Bach for harpsichord in 1713-14, and subsequently arranged for trumpet and strings by Jargle G Storløken. The music, perhaps inevitably, lies less comfortably under the fingers of the soloist than Haydn’s concerto; but Mackie, faced with not inconsiderable technical and musical challenges, demonstrated a fine technique and daring sense of risk. Dynamic contrasts were exaggerated, the piano episodes almost disappearing – even in the most intricate passages – making the sudden bursts of colour and energy invigorating. In the first movement Allegro the long, demanding lines offer scant opportunity for the soloist to draw breath, but Mackie did not need such a respite, so impressive was his control. Occasionally phrase endings seemed a little snatched, but the fingers were nimble and there much bravura virtuosity to admire.
The concert began with another infrequently heard work, Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer Op.52. Written in 1868-69, these piano-four-hand plus vocal quartet ‘love-songs waltzes’ were presumably designed as sugary-sweet confections which would appeal to a domestic market (Hausmusik). They present evidence of Brahms’ eclectic love of Classical Schubert, schmaltzy Strauss and Slavonic folksiness. The original texts (amorous lyrics from Slavic dances translated by Brahms’ friend Georg Friedrich Damuer) attest to the composer’s dreamy romanticism: ‘Tell me, maiden dearest, who has with your glances roused these wild ardours in this cool breast of mine, will you not soften your heart?’ The musical outcomes are slight, though; the melodies are over almost before they have begun. It was perhaps not surprising that Kluxen and the Philharmonia did not totally convince. For, while the agitated folky rhythms of, say, the second waltz had grit and rhythmic bite, there more cloying Straussian numbers lacked the requisite string sentimentality: perhaps the acoustic was against them; designed principally for spoken theatre the Marlowe does not assist orchestral resonance and warmth (although it was noticeable that the Philharmonia were seated towards the very front of the stage, to reduce the effect of the inherently dry acoustic and minimise the absorption of the black stage drapes, and this did give the string tone more clarity and presence than has been evident on previous occasions when I have heard the Philharmonia perform here).
Overall, there was some Brahmsian charm and freshness but also a slight sense of unfamiliarity and unease. Violas and woodwind seemed to become adrift at the start of the fourth waltz, although the violas quickly regained their composure and generally played with vigour and character. But, one wondered why these saccharine snippets had been programmed.
After the interval, we were offered an interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony which was thought-provoking if not always entirely convincing: idiosyncratic but not always technically or musically satisfying. Kluxen likes his tempi brisk and his accents incisive; this can create real dynamism and spark, but sometimes at the expense of overall formal structure and coherence. Occasionally the Philharmonia sounded as surprised as we were by the conductor’s whims. I also found the balance between top and bottom to be not always satisfactory: I’d have liked more emphasis on the beautifully lyrical Eb arpeggio-swaying from the celli which provides the motivic foundations of the Allegro con brio but less weight in the bass at the start of the second movement, in which the Marcia funèbre theme seemed mannered and fragmented, lacking grace and eloquence. That said, the string articulation in the Scherzo was stunningly breezy – sweeping us along in an airy whirlwind. But, more adventurousness would have been welcome in the last movement: I did not feel in the Finale: Allegro molto that formal bounds were being broken – surely there should be more sense of surprise that the finale movement offers a set of variations which breaks the traditions of symphonic form.
Perhaps unfamiliar programming and a change of soloist led to a slightly unsettled feeling. Overall, though, there were many moments of musicianship to admire, and much to ponder.