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The Trumpet Shall Sound

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
06/17/2010 -  & June 18, 19*, 2010
Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll – Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
HK Gruber: Aerial
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symhony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183/173dB

Håkan Hardenberger (Trumpets, Cowhorn)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

H. Hardenberger (© Marco Borggreve)

HK Gruber is a splendid composer, no doubt of that. His Frankenstein!!, played with the St. Louis Orchestra last year, is like Façade for cannibals. His Aerial, given the Phil premiere this week, composed for the undoubted most brilliant trumpet player in the history of trumpet-playing, was a glistening piece of atmosphere.

But during the intermission, I did the unforgivable. I looked at the orchestration of Gruber’s piece. A whopping aggregate of three flutes, two piccolos, six clarinets, saxophones, four horns etc etc etc. Even Håkan Hardenberger had to play two different trumpets, a cowhorn and sing through his instrument.

And then I looked at the orchestration of Mozart’s “little” G minor Symphony. Resources fit for a pauper: a pair of oboes and bassoons, four horns and strings. Poor Mozart.

And guess who wins the game of music? No, don’t guess. Mozart’s symphony, with three diminutive movements and one long opening, offered endless clarity, longing, depths of despair, measures of elation.

And yes, it is an unfair comparison, for HK Gruber is enormous fun. More than fun, one has the feeling that the supposed simplicity of Aerial–opening major triads, atmosphere approaching Ives’ The Unanswered Question, and only later achieving a density of orchestra, exaggerated dance movements, with supersonic playing of Mr. Hardenberger–and obviously Mr. Gruber knows how to build a work which has an immediate effect.

Or effects. The two movements of Aerial picture a) a “Nordic expanse with Northern lights glimmering” and b) “all of earth from a vantage point of space”. The latter is entitled “Gone Dancing”, and yes, the eclectic Mr. Gruber with the electric Mr. Hardenberger produce bluesy notes, gentle pop, a density resembling the end of La Valse, and trumpet-playing soaring so high that Dizzy Gillespie would have been impressed.

Alan Gilbert obviously enjoyed conducting it, for his usually stolid body movements were very much in sync with Mr. Gruber’s intensions.

But Mr. Gilbert had the earlier music down pat. The Mozart, with that reduced orchestra, played the tough and somewhat desolate piece with a steady hand. Changes in feelings, sudden modulations showed that this might have been the first “mature” Mozart, and Mr. Gilbert gave it all the clarity it deserved.

The two Wagner pieces were very different. The Siegfried Idyll is the anti-Wagner. A work for a birthday and an anniversary, a work of tranquil joy, played on the staircase of Wagner’s Lucerne house, itself set in acres of rolling fields, a short walk from the river. Its tranquility is respectful, as an ode of joy it cannot be surpassed.

The secret is how to conduct it with respect, yet to bring out those dramatic feelings of love and contentment. Mr. Gilbert conducted it with respect, the chamber orchestra played with meticulous care. But for some reason, the respect never offered the greatness which the music undoubtedly deserves.

That couldn’t be said at all for the final Tristan pieces. Alan Gilbert not only pulled out all the stops, he gave it all the passion, the urging, the love and the death together.

Not a single one of the four works played was without great merit. But when Mr. Gilbert took the Tristan works, he created an intuitive and gripping paean to our most sensitive emotions.

Harry Rolnick



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