United Kingdom Tveitt, Bull, Shostakovich, Piazzola, Hindemith, Weill: Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet), Gunnar Flagstad (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 28.2.2017. (GPu)
Geirr Tveitt – ‘Vélkomne med aera’ from Suite No.1, A Hundred Hardanger Tunes, Op. 151
Edvard Hagerup Bull – Perpetuum Mobile (Homage à Johann Strauss)
Dmitri Shostakovich – Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, Op.46
Astor Piazzola – Café 1930
Paul Hindemith – Sonata for Trumpet and Piano
Kurt Weill – ‘Nanna’s Lied’, ‘Youkali’, ‘Je ne t’aime pas’
Not many readers of Seen and Heard will, I suspect, need me to tell them that Tine Thing Helseth is a virtuoso of the trumpet. What is even clearer when hearing her live is that her technical accomplishments are complemented by a great communicative warmth and a rich humanity. Her pleasant, unpretentious stage manner reinforces this.
Ms. Helseth opened with music by two of her fellow Norwegians, the first piece being one of the many folk tunes from the Hardanger region which Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) arranged in five orchestral suites. Although much of Tveitt’s work was lost in a disastrous fire in 1970, four of these five suites survived. ‘Vélkomne med aera’ (Welcome with honour) evokes a spacious landscape, somewhat melancholy in its bleak strength. The beauty of Helseth’s tone, and the perfection of her intonation were both immediately obvious and were thoroughly sustained thereafter. Her instrumental control seemed always at the service of emotional impact, never an end in itself.
By way of contrast Edvard Hagerup Bull’s homage to Johann Strauss (Perpetuum Mobile), a recycling of themes from the famous ‘musical joke’ by Johann the younger, here underpinned by new, more modern harmonies, was far less characteristically ‘Norwegian’ (without wishing to reduce the varied music of that country to a single stereotype). The piece has an élan which reminds one that Bull chose to study in Paris with Milhaud. Helseth’s playing was full of flashing rapid runs, her sound varied by the use of the mute. In energy, skill and musical insight this was very impressive.
Helseth has always been happy to appropriate music originally written for other instruments or, indeed, for the human voice. Her programme continued with versions of Shostakovich’s Opus 46, Four Songs on poems by Pushkin, originally written for bass voice and piano, the titles of which might be translated as ‘Rebirth’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘Premonition’ and ‘Stanzas’. Helseth’s tone at times quite appropriately took on a distinctly vocal quality (though such effects were not overdone). There was an appealing dignity to her playing of ‘Wiedergeburt’, sober but shot through with flashes of hope, especially at a point corresponding to a moment in the original song in which the text speaks of “visions of my innocent primal days”. In ‘Eifersűchtig’, Helseth’s trumpet spoke not only of jealousy but also of the bitterness of self-recrimination.
In ‘Premonition’ – the sung text speaks of gathering storm clouds threatening misfortune and of the protagonist’s need to find once more “the resolve and endurance of [his] proud youth” – the interpretation was suitably (and subtly) ominous, the motion tightly controlled, the ‘shine’ of the trumpet’s sound rather subdued. In ‘Stanzen’, where the mood is set more by the piano than by the trumpet, from its heavily emphasised bass chords at the opening onwards, the all-pervading sombreness was powerfully put before us both by Helseth’s trumpet and Flagstad’s piano. These four settings of Pushkin were written in 1936 and completed in January 1937 – anyone at all familiar with the biography of Shostakovich will appreciate the significance of these dates. The danger in which the composer found himself after Stalin’s Pravda denunciation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, surely shaped both Shostakovich’s choice of texts and the music with which he set them. It is a tribute to both Helseth and Flagstad that one should have been able to sense this informing context even without Pushkin’s words.
More appropriation came with Astor Piazzola’s Café 1930, originally written for flute and guitar, as the second of the four movements of Piazzola’s Histoire du Tango (1986). Playing (as throughout) barefoot, in a flowing dress, Helseth’s work here was very much in the spirit and idiom of the tango, as she swayed to and fro, mixing passages of supreme clarity with episodes of clouded sound, both of which spoke with force and exactness of purpose. The generally excellent Flagstad was a little less certain in this tango-influenced music, as he was later in the jazz-influenced pieces by Weill which were to close the programme. Clearly a pianist thoroughly at home in the classical tradition, he never found, consistently, the kind of rhythmic flexibility or ‘swing’ that these non-classical pieces really needed.
The most substantial work in the concert, and one actually written for trumpet and piano, was Hindemith’s Sonata of 1939. At the time of its composition Hindemith had experienced something of the kind of treatment meted out to Shostakovich in Russia. Hindemith was effectively forced into exile by the Nazis. As Norman Lebrecht puts it in his Companion to 20th-Century Music (1992):
Hindemith was attacked by Goebbels as an atonalist when he was, in fact, a German craftsman working in traditional materials of Bachian counterpoint and Lutheran chorale … [Mathis der Maler] was banned in 1934 because the propaganda minister took a personal dislike to [Hindemith]’s intellectualism and his Jewish friends.
Hindemith began his exile in Switzerland, which is where this sonata was written. In its first movement Helseth played with striking authority as she shaped the (somewhat stolid) theme with which it begins in a manner full of the kraft (strength, vigour) which the score requests. Later, the piano triplets were delightfully articulated by Flagstad and the climax of the movement, in which the piano sustains these triplets and the trumpet returns to its opening them, was memorably played.
Much of the second movement (massig bewegt) has about it the feel of a slow march (it is tempting to hear in it an allusion to the German invasions by then getting underway). The closing pages of the movement are fascinating, as the two instruments superficially seem no longer to share the same purpose.
The closing (and longest) movement is marked ‘Trauermusik’ (funeral music) and its relevance to the historical (and personal) context is surely unavoidable. The sombre aura of Hindemith’s music made a powerful impact as played by Helseth and Flagstad. At times sparse, at others very dense of texture, at times bold and declarative, at others tender and thoughtful, Helseth and Flagstad were heard at their (considerable) best here. As a matter both of musical logic and with reference to the context of the work’s composition there is a terrifying aptness to the closing use of the chorale “Alle Menschen műssen sterben” (All Men Must Die) – familiar from Bach (BWV 643). This sonata is, taken entire, and played as well as it was on this occasion, a work of considerable, unforced grandeur. Why is Hindemith still so seriously underrated?
Hindemith’s enforced exile was particularly arbitrary – it made little sense even in terms of Nazi ideology. That the Jewish-born Kurt Weill should have found it necessary to flee Germany is more readily explained. He did so in 1933 and arrived in New York in September 1935. Helseth and Flagstad closed their concert with three songs by Weill. The first (originally a setting of a text by Brecht) was ‘Nanna’s Lied’, written in Paris in 1934. In this performance it had very much the feel of a jazz ballad, Helseth’s timbre audibly informed by a familiarity with more than a few of the great jazz trumpeters. It was in the remaining two songs by Weill, especially ‘Youkali’, that one most felt the lack of a pianist more at home in the jazz idiom; still Flagstad’s occasional stiffness of phrase and rhythm didn’t trouble Helseth unduly, who produced some persuasively jazzy phrasing and a few aptly ‘dirty’ notes. In ‘Je ne t’aime pas’ (the original song sets words by the French poet Maurice Magre) classical and jazz elements are conjoined in a fashion in which Weill excels most other composers) and a fine recital came to a very successful close.