New York Philharmonic/Gilbert Håkan Hardenberger – Wagner, Gruber & Mozart

Siegfried Idyll
HK Gruber
Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 19 June, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Mats LundquistFor this concert Alan Gilbert turned to Austro-German music, sandwiching in between two Wagner stalwarts a symphony by Mozart and a trumpet concerto by one of Austria’s most popular contemporary composers, HK (Heinz Karl) ‘Nali’ Gruber.

The program opened with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Originally written as a piece for fifteen instruments, it had a rather interesting premiere, Wagner presenting it to his wife Cosima for her birthday on Christmas morning in 1870, having it performed on the staircase of their villa in Tribschen, Switzerland, by Lake Lucerne. Although it contains music from Wagner’s music-drama “Siegfried” (the third part of the ‘Ring’ tetralogy), it predates that work, serving as a study in various themes and motifs later incorporated into the stage-work. The intimacies of Siegfried Idyll celebrate the couple’s mutual love as well as the product of it, their first child, aptly named Siegfried, for whom Wagner inserted a nursery-rhyme theme for the oboe.

Although conducive to a hall as large as Avery Fisher, employing a chamber orchestra sacrifices the intimacy of the original scoring. Gilbert’s slightly brisk opening tempo set the mood for what was an impassioned, rhapsodic reading, that seemed intent on driving home the more fervent expressions of love while leaving the quieter, more tender passages to their own devices. Thus, a sense of languor that should imbue these bars with warm sentiment was missing. The New York Philharmonic continues to play beautifully for its new conductor, at least after a slight glitch in the strings at the beginning. Siegfried’s heroic motifs on Philip Myers’s horn were especially noteworthy.

Håkan Hardenberger. Photograph: hakanhardenberger.comHK Gruber achieved some international notoriety in 1970 with his “Frankenstein!!”, a neo-gothic “pan-demonium”. Gruber has had a rather diverse career in music. After studying with Austria’s leading composer of an earlier generation, Gottfried von Einem, he wrote a prize-winning Concerto for Orchestra in 1966. Gruber has also appeared as a singer, having been a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Later, he founded the MOB art and tone ART ensemble, in which he both sang and acted.

His trumpet concerto, Aerial, consists of two movements played without pause, lasting about twenty-five minutes. It was written as a vehicle for Håkan Hardenberger, who has performed the work many times since its premiere in 1999. Gruber’s music has been called ‘neo-Romantic’, ‘neo-tonal’, and ‘neo-Viennese’, but it is hardly regressive if certainly not easily classifiable. There is a strain of the demonic and ironic that infuses his music with black humor, combining influences of Berg and Stravinsky with cabaret- and pop-music styles.

Aerial is written for a sizeable orchestra, with enhanced percussion that includes drum kit, crotales, Chinese tam-tam, vibraphone, bells, xylorimba and marimba. Even the soloist plays on a multiple of trumpets, in C, piccolo trumpet in B flat and cow horn, even singing into his instrument occasionally. The first movement opens with soft, celestial music, generated by shifting sustained chords made to glow by occasional intercession of the vibraphone. Thus, Gruber creates an atmosphere that seems to float above the earth from which the soloist views and comments upon what is below, using each of his instruments in turn, both muted and open, to create a fascinating variety of sounds. As the work proceeds, it becomes apparent that the focus in the first movement is on the soloist, leaving the large ensemble to sustain the spatial, drifting atmosphere. Although melody as such never takes shape, one recognizes a very, slow bluesy haze that permeates the music, even when it builds to momentary climaxes.

The second movement is somewhat difficult to characterize. After isolated piquant scraps of music played by the soloist, the orchestra enters, more animated now, with jazzy counter-lines to its own rocky motor rhythms. Shades of cabaret-style subtly begin to take shape in triple meter. Soon the music gives the impression of marionettes dancing to rhythmically unbalanced, faintly Gershwinesque music, driving itself to distraction until it suddenly stops. The work ends in silence as the trumpet soloist turns, walks back to the piano, and looks in as if seeking something. Though rather bizarre, Aerial is quite an entertainment.

The second half of the concert opened with Mozart’s ‘little’ G minor Symphony to distinguish it from the later and more famous symphony in that key (K550). A school of thought considers Mozart’s minor-key symphonies as forerunners of the Romantic era, particularly apropos to this work given its “Sturm und Drang” propensities. The outer movements generate stormy music, the first received substantial notoriety from its inclusion in the film “Amadeus”, and Gilbert set the tone for the entire performance. He sides with those who see the symphony as a precursor of romanticism. Played with full vigor and energy, the first movement was characterized by strong, demonstrative fortes that overstepped their dynamic markings in an attempt to drive the music home with a will. After a contrastingly elegant, graceful Andante, the minor-key Minuet was treated as a drama in miniature, its intensity given momentary relief during the lighter Trio, and the finale was also endowed with a romantic character with forceful playing and vigorous energy.

Although ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is worlds apart from Mozart’s symphony, Gilbert’s approach narrowed the gap. I was favorably impressed by the shaping of the ‘Liebestod’ with its overwhelming climax and heavenly ending. But quieter moments, especially during the opening of the ‘Prelude’, should have been much softer, particularly in woodwind passages. Romantics were probably well satisfied by this concert’s bill of fare.

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