Brass Day 2

Fanfare ‘Ziggurat’ [BBC commission: second performance]
Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op.86
HK Gruber
Aerial – Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
He is armoured without [BBC commission: world premiere]

David Pyatt, Michael Thompson, Martin Owen & Cormac Ó hAodáin (horns)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Törbjorn Huitmark (trumpet) & David Purser (trombone); Fanfare Trumpets of the Band of the Coldstream Guards; Musicians from Uzbekistan; Musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire, London and South East England [Wiegold]

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
André de Ridder [Bingham & Gruber]
Sir Charles Mackerras [Schumann & Janáček]
Peter Wiegold

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 28 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ziggurat, says Judith Bingham, is a condensed depiction of the building of Etemenaki, the Babylonian temple whose name means ‘The Foundation of Heaven upon Earth’. The seven sections, denoting the seven layers to the building, should last 17 seconds each. The completion of the building coincides with the completion of a melody – after a sequence of “ever-rising harmonies” which “give a feeling of looking up at, and down from, this immense building”. This terse piece, forcefully played, was energetic and busy – exploding into conclusion. André de Ridder, with musicians from the RNCM, Birmingham Conservatoire and BBC Philharmonic, held it together expertly. This was the second performance – the first had been a few hours earlier in the opening “Brass Day” concert.

André de Ridder came even more to the fore as Aerial, HK Gruber’s trumpet concerto, progressed. The work has two night-time sections: out of doors (‘Wild Nights’, after Emily Dickinson) and indoors (‘Gone Dancing’). We began in pellucid stillness and quietude. Håkan Hardenberger’s trumpet possessed then a silvery softness – his non-flamboyant control of breathing, volume and pitch was remarkable. In ‘Gone Dancing’, soloist, orchestra and conductor came alive to fragmentary dance rhythms – changing and shifting, unremitting, dancing without breath. André de Ridder, in full control of the large orchestra and the rapid alternations of tempo, jigged on the podium, clearly engrossed in making this splendid music. Hardenberger, meanwhile, was producing bravura tones from his trumpet, ever faster and louder, throwing off passages of thrilling difficulty.

Peter Wiegold’s He is armoured without treated the venerable Royal Albert Hall with great splendour. Groups of brass players stood everywhere – in the aisles, just below the choir stalls, in the Gallery, at the rear of the Arena and facing the orchestra (the scarlet-uniformed trumpeters of the Coldstream Guards). There was even a boxing ring in the centre of the Arena, roping in Törbjorn Huitmark and David Purser. On the stage, one either side of Peter Wiegold (the composer-conductor), were the huge karnays of the musicians from Uzbekistan, whose splendid garments were embroidered in restrained but exotic oriental style.

Wiegold’s 25-minute piece is a “study of the sounds of war, the lust and the melancholy of war”. The scope and scale of the work is enormous. We encountered kings, blasting and taunting, the explosions of fighting (at one point the scarlet Guards bombarded the ivory-clad Uzbekistanis with sound – who retaliated). There’s a ‘long night’ in which the flugelhorn evokes dread of the battle to come the next morn. The trumpet and the trombone in the ‘boxing ring’ perform as jesters – echoing Puck’s “Lord, what fools these mortals be”. Time and again, the air filled with throaty, explosive ‘raspberries’ – a robust retort to the rasp of steel. When battle had got under way, three conductors led ensembles that took disparate actions. Throughout, Peter Wiegold needed to gesture behind his back to signal entrance to instrumentalists placed at his rear.

Rarely has music in the Royal Albert Hall sounded so splendid – or have there been so many players. Hearing this work was a stunning experience.

Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the other works. Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns featured Cormac Ó hAodáin, David Pyatt, Michael Thompson and Martin Owen (all musicians who play, or have played, in London orchestras). They made very accomplished noises, as did brass-players from the Royal Northern College of Music who added to the trumpet contingent and blew a stalwart fanfare in the Janáček.

Sir Charles and I part company over interpretation – especially the Janáček. Alan Bennett’s sermon in “Beyond the Fringe” became pertinent, something to the effect that ‘my Janáček is a hairy man, but Sir Charles’s Janáček is a smooth man’. The ‘smooth’ Janáček was a provincial composer, an engaging minor talent. ‘Hairy’ Janáček was a blazing, awkward genius. I admire Sir Charles without reservation for his labour of love in bringing this composer to the world’s notice – but I was bored and irritated during this bland, tinkling performance of the Sinfonietta.

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