Humour in Music: Haydn, Shostakovich, Dvořák

ItalyItaly Haydn, Shostakovich, DvořákOrchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Conductor, Yuri Temirkanov Martha Argerich (piano) Giuliano Sommerhalder (trumpet).  Sala Santa Cecilia Rome. 11.04.2015 (JB)

I can never hear the andante of Haydn’s surprise symphony without Gerard Hoffnung’s cartoon flashing onto my mind’s eye –an old geezer bald as a coot, ears erect, rimless specs, moustache, bow tie, hands on right knee, while a hand with  mallet is reaching out of an old gramophone horn, tapping him over the head to the  relevant four bars   (five to eight) quoted below the sketch.  My inner chortle is as much thanks to Hoffnung as Haydn.

Papa Haydn’s sense of humour was gentler than cartoonist Hoffnung’s: polite too (what the Italians call educato).  But was Haydn’s London audience (Hannover Square Rooms, 28 March, 1792) in the habit of falling asleep during the composer’s charming symphonies?  Is this a teach’em-a-lesson gesture? Bars one to four are marked piano, then bars five and six (a repitition of one and two) are heard pianissimo, with bars seven and eight a variant of  four and five, taking us to the dominant key (still pianissimo); all this with strings alone, but on the final beat of bar eight, the wind players enter with the timpani on a mighty thud (fortissimo) to break the  false peace.

As every schoolboy knows, you can’t explain a joke without destroying it.  Which is what I’ve just done.  Yuri Temirkanov does no such thing.  Grace and charm are his hallmarks.  And they are beautifully maintained throughout his four movements.  Except for delivery of the rude fart of bar eight.  (The genius of Hoffnung’s cartoon is that it explains the joke while leaving it unexplained.)

Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (1933) is altogether a rougher bit of humour: a youthful romp in four movements which poked fun at the popular music of the time, much in the same vein as William Walton’s Façade (composed a few years earlier).  This is really a piano concerto (Shostakovich was the soloist as the Leningrad premiere) and makes fun of pianistic virtuosity.  All the wit is delivered from the piano, with the trumpet giving the piano the raspberry at every turn.  The trumpet doesn’t come into its own until the last movement (allegro con brio) which in some editions of the score is marked as a Can-Can.

And such was the involvement of pianist, trumpeter and conductor, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see all three break into that dance.  As it was, we wouldn’t permit them to leave without encoring the last movement.  Here, the trumpeter playfully but loudly announces a tune which I know to the words, I’m a little Dutchgirl (They doubtless know it to other words in Russia.)

Talk about musicians having the audience in their hands! Their delivery was more than welcome-to-the-party. Severely infectious. You won’t be surprised to know that this infection is a key part of Martha Argerich’s supremely volcanic, musical temperament: sound erupts out of her with unique force.

But you can be forgiven for not knowing that Giuliano Sommerhalder is almost certainly the greatest young trumpeter on today’s scene.  He is the son and pupil of Max Sommerhalder –the greatest teacher of trumpet in Europe (and probably the world).  A younger son, Simone, is a very fine oboist.  Giuliano has been guest first trumpet at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Concertgebouw (2011 – 2013) as well as a founding member of the Italian Wonderbrass (2006).  As from this concert, he replaces his friend, Omar Tomasini, as first trumpet of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. Omar, on leave from his new first trumpet post at the Concertgebow, was playing second trumpet in tonight’s concert. So we Romans still have much ultra-cool, golden trumpet sound to look forward to.

The editor of Private Eye might have said that that’s enough humour in music for one night.  We would have to tell him that we haven’t quite finished.  While humour is not to the fore in Dvořák’s eighth symphony, the joy of living is.  This is Dvořák’s sunniest work with the doom and gloom totally absent.  Folksy tunes are realised with effortless charm under Yuri Temirkanov’s baton: I never heard the S Cecilia strings sound so warm and easy.  The Bohemian springtime suits their excellence under this Russian guidance.  And with those two trumpeters to lead them off (Giuliano took his new place with the orchestra after the concerto) how could you go wrong?

Reminder: should you be asked to go to a party by Yuri Temirkanov, Martha Argerich and / or Giuliano Sommerhalder, be sure to accept the invitation.

Jack Buckley

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