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What if the modern trumpet and Steinway Grand had developed from their more primitive precursors a good century or so earlier? What would the composers of the day have made of them? Well, now we have an answer: in The Neoclassical Trumpet trumpeter Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and pianist/arranger Daniel-Ben Pienaar spiritedly re-imagine works by Stravinsky, Leigh, Fauré and Respighi …
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
For those without an interest in such reimaginative apologia, another aim is to entice the listener with persuasive perspectives on the dynamic possibilities of these two instruments in collaboration, per se. Listening to music so fashioned is, in any case, hardly original; transformed pieces appear peppered throughout musical history, as frequently as books turned to plays and plays to films. Last but not least in our motivation is the desire to offer trumpet players, in particular, an opportunity to play a range of ‘fine music’ of a kind that only intermittently appears in their solo portfolio. Not all pieces are so suited to ‘trump-ification’: one must ask what, at the heart of a work, can be detected as sympathetic to the trumpeter’s character and armoury, whether gymnastic or lyrical—and much in between? In our past selection we were drawn to the biting and febrile ostinato-driven momentum of Fauré’s E minor Violin Sonata, the fanfares of Mendelssohn’s D major Cello Sonata, and in Chabrier’s Pièces Pittoresques the happy synergies with the cornet-inspired salon world of Arban; for our Bachian survey it was the often effervescent passagi which characterized the trumpet writing in Bach’s cantatas. All our arrangements are derived from extensive ‘work-shopping’, where each chosen work is exposed to the technical, textural and timbral worlds that these instruments inhabit in tandem, whilst enjoying the relative novelty of a medium unburdened by received wisdom in the repertoire performed.
So we come to the NeoClassical (now deliberately upper cased)—in effect a reference to things pre-Classical in the musical sense, whether Renaissance or Baroque. This compositional zeitgeist from the years immediately following the First World War has significantly more tangible links to the trumpeter’s perspective and experience than many of the aforementioned projects. Each of the composers represented here wrote significant parts for the trumpet in various chamber and orchestral contexts. The only original solo trumpet piece by any of these composers is Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonatine of 1956, written while Martinů was living in New York—having fled a Nazified Czechoslovakia—whilst commuting weekly to Philadelphia to teach at the Curtis Institute. Martinů had previously employed the instrument as soloist in his jazz-ballet period-piece, La Revue de Cuisine from 1927, complete with an à la mode Charleston tantalisingly from the New World. If not exactly neoclassical to the letter, Martinů’s balletic, folky, rhythmically motoric and deliberately wrong-footing Sonatine would not have existed without the inspiration of Stravinsky and others, those who sought to address the luxuriant opulence of late romanticism with sharp, satirical observations distilled through a compendium of clean-cut lines and gestures typical of eighteenth-century ideals.
Therein lies the essence of Igor Stravinsky’s new language of the early 1920s; and in projecting this departure with sparky resonances from the past, the trumpet becomes a key protagonist in works such as the Octet (1923). No greater emblem of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period exists than Pulcinella. Although premiered in 1920 as a ballet, it is the eight-movement suite (re-fashioned by the composer from the twenty-movement original and first performed in 1922 by his great champion Pierre Monteux in Boston) which is most frequently heard today as a standard showpiece for a sleek chamber orchestra. Although the prototype for Stravinsky’s new neoclassical adventure, Pulcinella is sui generis in the period for drawing quite so uninhibitedly on original eighteenth-century sources. The stylistic references of the later, Brandenburg-inspired, Dumbarton Oaks typically propel the music further towards Stravinsky and further away from the eighteenth century. In Pulcinella, movements from themes and fragments of Pergolesi (and others) straddle quasi-literal transcription and the genuinely un-derivative and dazzlingly original Stravinskian world of the Septet and Violin Concerto.
The main narrative of the work remains firmly within the Commedia dell’Arte model of Diaghilev, underpinned by the remarkably baroque-sensitive Ernst Ansermet (his recordings of Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Op 6 from 1931, for example, are revelatory in this regard) who conducted the original ballet with the famously stylized choreography and dancing of Léonide Massine and Pablo Picasso’s evocative antique costumes and sets.
Questions of ethical propriety in the work arose during a good deal of the twentieth century. To what extent could Stravinsky truly claim to be the creator? This would now be considered something of an academic argument given the way old models intersect with new work as a matter of course. Originality can be gauged here by Stravinsky’s darting, unpredictable and quixotic points of departure—deliberately literal in some places and decisively radical in others, notably the dislocated ostinato (‘Finale’), the striking rhythmic irregularities reminiscent of L’Histoire du Soldat (1918) in the faster movements (‘Tarantella’), the hallucinatory accompaniments to undisturbed melody (‘Serenata’), mesmerizing endless textural variety imposed on ‘period manners’ (‘Scherzino’), the corruscating dissonances of a comic gait (‘Sinfonia’ and ‘Vivo’)—in the latter, the composer’s ironic text is taken on and translated from clumsy trombone buffoonery to petulant trumpet crossfire. Later, throwbacks to standard baroque dance and variation principles (‘Gavotta’ and ‘Minuetto’) abound.
All these elements afford a remarkably satisfying coherence, doubtless drawn from the richly coloured and unifying characteristics of Pulcinella himself: the crafty (often fake-buffoon), nostalgic, impoverished and irreverent Neapolitan puppet-figure. A kaleidoscope repository of musical possibility to portray a personality of such ironic and destabilising potential could not have been more ideal for Stravinsky’s obsessively quick-witted, pithy and incisive exchanges. One of Richard Taruskin’s notable observations of the neoclassical world of Pulcinella and surrounding works is that the telling of the story and the activating of fresh musical materials transcend the story itself. Indeed, form is conditioned by content and in turn the performer withdraws as a wry observer, far away from the protagonist role of the ‘Romantic’ century.
The questioning of role play indeed lies at the heart of this re-working of Pulcinella for trumpet and piano. A variety of duo solutions appeared in the decade or so after the ballet, the most famous being the Suite italienne, initially for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in 1933 but more durably disseminated in a version which Stravinsky undertook in collaboration with violinist Samuel Dushkin, and which remains especially popular today. The main differences with this present version, is that all the movements from the Pulcinella Suite are incorporated to form a sizeable new recital piece. Neither do we take our cue from Dushkin in other respects: the fleshed-out sonorities of the full score here prevail over the relatively sketchy textures of the string-inspired Suite italienne.
Whilst there are evident colorific limitations in any duo reading (though with a battery of three different trumpets and six mutes employed, arguably less so here than with many instruments), the distillation of material and dialogue between the two players, and the references and implications therein, are conceived in the spirit of the short-lived but contemporaneous ‘Society for Private Performance’ chamber scorings of orchestral works by Mahler, Debussy and others by Schoenberg and his followers. Those familiar with the trumpet solos in Stravinsky’s original will recognize the chameleon-like part it plays in this version, whilst retaining its material almost note-for-note in the ‘Toccata’. Stravinsky wrote: ‘Pulcinella was my discovery of the past—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror too’. The trumpet can be heard here echoing the past with its ubiquitous ‘baroque’ identity while a fresh ‘duo’ text implores the player and listener to reflect the work further in a hall of mirrors, ‘a hommage’.
Ottorino Respighi’s engagement with the past, whether in Gli uccelli (The Birds) or his other works re-deploying old music, is rather less self-conscious than Stravinsky’s alignment of a creative arrival and departure which defined the Russian’s compositional identity over a specific period. However, there are some similarities. It was Diaghilev, no less, who stimulated Respighi’s interest in his customized neoclassicism, encouraging him to extend the practice of his lute transcriptions (Antiche danze ed arie) towards a ballet of themes by Rossini, La Boutique fantasque (1918). This work thus became a kind of prototype for Pulcinella, though Respighi’s rhapsodic coloration sits firmly outside Stravinsky’s global trendsetting and promotes a landscape of indigenous referencing—liberally drawing on a breezy and atmospheric repository of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian musical sensibility. He was yet to go ‘over the top’ in the manner which critics have regularly remarked as being Respighi’s bombastic response to the rise of Italian nationalism, or simply a shortage of good taste, in the larger symphonic canvases.
As revealed in Gli uccelli, evocative vignettes for smaller forces of consistent luminosity and refinement appear to be no less a part of the composer’s armoury. Alongside subsequent sets of ‘Ancient dances and airs’, Respighi composed this appealing five-movement suite in 1928, skilfully paraphrasing baroque keyboard pieces and dovetailing a musical menagerie of feathered friends, specified and implied. The opening ‘Prelude’, employing an arresting theme by Pasquini, is pure exhibition: our attention turns from caged canaries to many delicate and exotic species (especially notable in the triple-time dance in the middle) all emerging fleetingly to the foreground and ceremoniously flying off in formation, save for the decorous peacock. Rather more specific is ‘La colomba’ (‘The Dove’) which is afforded an old-world sarabande, almost biblical in its resonatingly nostalgic cadences, peaceful feathers barely ruffled by the gentle wind. It is an exquisite chamber set-piece.
The real onomatopoeic action starts in the coop of Rameau’s famous ‘Hen’ or, here, ‘La gallina’ in Italian, where the restless pecking manifests itself in tripping semiquavers, at once whimsical, graphic, sequential and ironic. Respighi’s respect for the pantomime from within the sinews of Rameau’s original is both instinctive and lends itself to this idiom where the trumpet’s mute can add and subtract to a form of musical Botticelli. Quite how Respighi sourced his material so successfully at a time when ‘early music’ was barely accessible in the representative advocacy of the post-war era is probably more a matter of serendipity than anything. Yet the aptness of folksong material, in the atmospheric ‘L’usignuolo’ (‘The Nightingale’), from Jacob van Eyck’s ‘Engels Nactegaeltje’, is profoundly affecting. If Respighi brushes aside technical niceties at times, he does so with a stubborn interest in the clarity of his imagined canvas: here, perhaps an elusive birdsong in a timeless forest. What follows in ‘Il cucù’ (‘The Cuckoo’) is in one sense the most clichéd of springtime sound worlds but through an inventively counterpointed patchwork of ‘baroque’ pastiche-incipits, we finally return, maze-like, to the opening theme where the full aviary takes its final bow.
What distinguishes Gabriel Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques from these suites is that the music draws on no extant material—other than from the composer’s own earlier work. There are, though, longings (as the title suggests) to a carefree and courtly neoclassical fete in this gloriously evergreen—but in chronology of output, autumnal—four-movement suite. Fauré’s inspiration for drawing on such clearly articulated and periodic musical dance forms is perhaps characteristic of a perennial creative serenity that never—despite posthumous performance practices to the contrary—manifests itself in dreamy evocation at the expense of characterful incision. For the first bars of the ‘Overture’, the melody is sprung forward, the phrases questioned and answered, the second ‘subject’ effusive but soon to be inflected with flighty ambition, at once toying—like a Couperin ‘ordre’—with memory, wit and anticipation.
Fauré’s mastery at capturing the theatrical conceits of his forbears is dream-filled but hardly dreamy. The work resumed life in 1919 (from a symphony some 50 years earlier) as a contributing part of a commission from Prince Albert of Monaco, an elaborate post-Great War entertainment to flatter a clientele with social delusions: again, a Commedia dell’Arte troupe humorously observing imaginary assignations amongst a decidedly aristocratic audience. Four movements were subsequently extricated to form this famous suite. The ‘Overture’ is drawn from the early symphony, as indeed are the subsequent ‘Menuet’ and ‘Gavotta’. The former dance is suitably gracious, rich in the kind of poignant melodic nuancing that Fauré inflects effortlessly even when providing music of relative objectivity. The middle section contains a delightful call to arms, perhaps an allusion to a town piper’s fanfare for an approaching banquet?
The ‘Gavotta’ exploits the bergamasque vein—more rustic, energized and mondaine than the ritualized contrivances of the previous movement. The ‘Pastorale’ is the only original movement here freshly composed. It would seem a misfit on initial inspection, conveying the unmistakeable late-Fauré harmonic dialect of the Violin Sonata in E minor and Piano Trio. It soon reveals itself as a masterpiece of subtle valediction, wryly observing a world born half a century earlier. Whether sourced from 1869 or 1919, Fauré’s intention is clearly, in his own words, to create something of ‘an impression you get from the paintings of Watteau’, is delectably realized.
It is all-too-easy to stretch the meaning of ‘neoclassical’ to include any composition of the early-to-mid twentieth century which identifies with old music, and just as hard to find English music of the period that easily fits the subtle cultural admixture where antiquity acts as catalyst towards a personal and crystalline language à la Stravinsky. If Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite contains a good deal of originality around his set of renaissance dances, the result is oddly parochial compared to the less ambitious but more internationally flavoured canvas in the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Walter Leigh. Leigh was a student of Hindemith’s in the 1930s and adopted a practical and consciously neoclassical style to serve his professional interest in music for documentaries, education and the Early Music movement—hence his regular use of a harpsichord in his scores.
Three movements from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite capture the essence of Leigh’s lean stylistic hybrid of clear-cut Hindemith-inspired functionality wedded to an Elysian-inspired melody of the Cambridge Backs, especially the quiet melancholy of the ‘Intermezzo’—which has something of the Jacobeans about it. The outer movements are pithy, elf-like and rhythmically engaging, especially the final ‘Fairies’ Dance’ which makes no secret of its Mendelssohnian roots. For music of such light-hearted and blissful ephemerality, it is ironic to think of the furore it caused: written for a German production in 1936, it replaced the ‘degenerate’ Mendelssohn. Leigh has, therefore, in some quarters, been regarded as ‘an indirect accomplice to the Nazi’s campaign to purge Jewish influence from German art’. He died on active service near Tobruk in 1942.
An additional track here requires a licence for indulgence. Stenhammar could etch a score with remarkable allusions to classicism but hardly neoclassicism.We nearly embarked on the ‘Scherzo’ from the Serenade in F, Op 31, for that reason—but instead simply fell for the gorgeous ‘Mellanspel’ (‘Interlude’) from his cantata Sången, Op 44 (‘The Song’).
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood © 2015