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Hardenberger, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - new work trumpets a sun journey | reviews, news & interviews

Hardenberger, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - new work trumpets a sun journey

Hardenberger, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - new work trumpets a sun journey

A rarity, a premiere and a symphony of thoughtful modernity

Håkan Hardenberger: tested to the limit by Holloway's writingMarco Borggreve

The BBC Philharmonic and its chief guest conductor John Storgårds introduced their Manchester audience to two new things – possibly three – in this concert. One was a world premiere, and you can’t get much newer than that. The other big item was a symphony that’s already nearly 40 years old, yet having only its third performance in Britain.

The first piece was Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, which is hardly new, but still rarely heard. It dates from soon after the "Spring" Symphony, though the finale was re-written some time later, and is in reality a symphony without a slow movement – albeit that the movements were also supposed to be playable separately if required (not unusual in 19th century practice for symphonies anyway).

Its optimistic energy was apparent in the opening movements, and the scherzo has a solid, Germanic content which the neatly articulated playing of the Philharmonic could only partly compensate for. But its most attractive qualities are the Romantic dreaminess of its opening, which Storgårds (pictured below) made carefully apparent, and the big, yearning intervals of the finale’s main theme (amid its dogged dotted rhythms), where again a little portamento helped. Schumann offers only snatches of melodic relief among his motivic outworkings, and they were suitably grasped at, but they aren’t many.

There’s a rightness about associating the sound of the trumpet with the golden sun

Then it was on to the premiere of Robin Holloway’s Phaeton’s Journey: Son of the Sun, a trumpet concerto commissioned by the BBC. Håkan Hardenberger was the soloist. The title tells you what it’s about, and the score does what it says on the tin – it’s pure narrative programme music. The story (from Ovid) is of Apollo’s son, Phaeton, asking to ride his Sun-God dad’s chariot across the skies for one day, eventually getting his chance and then coming a big cropper. Anyone’s who’s been asked "Dad, can I borrow the car keys?" will know how Apollo felt, and of course his forebodings were justified.

The trumpet represents both the Sun and the son (hence the title), though at the beginning it’s the orchestral trumpet that sounds the identifying theme. Phaeton is presented as asking for his privilege again and again, and tension is raised by taking the trumpet part higher and higher in its tessitura. Many other vivid themes symbolize the details of the account – the basses and cellos, for instance, playing very fast to represent the outset of the journey, which the composer’s note tells us is a "bumpy ride". And so on.

There’s a rightness about associating the sound of the trumpet with the golden sun, both in respect of its god and his over-ambitious offspring, though I wished there had been some alternative to the concept of ultra-high notes to represent thoughts of desperation and the ultimate "eek" and "kerrang" of this notional storyboard sequence. They certainly tested Hardenberger to the limit, as they would test any player.

John Storgårds by Marco BorggreveNew music can mean many things; one of them is to go back to the devices of the past and reanimate them, and that’s what Holloway seems to be up to. Valentin Silvestrov, on the other hand, Ukrainian-born and now in his eighties, references the past in a different way. His Symphony No 5 is quite explicitly music that sounds as if the substance of something else has already passed – a rumination and meditation, as if all passion has been spent, not so much made of musical "arguments" as the endings and dissolutions of them.

Much of it is extremely beautiful, as long-drawn-out melody is his chief device, set against harmonies of the kind that will certainly not frighten the horses (though there is much unorthodox decoration in the delicate and detailed accompanying scoring). Those melodies can sound like Mahler, or even Rachmaninov, as they wend their way and embody sustained, almost final-sounding cadences. The single-movement work takes 45 minutes to play, so you have to be in for the long haul, but it has a shape deriving from an opening dissonance that returns at the end, together with a series of menacing brassy crescendos in the middle which build tension and seem to herald something new.

But they don’t (beyond introducing more of the opening melody) – that’s the point. Everything else is an extended fade-out, a melancholy long withdrawing roar. It was played with sweetness and warmth, as the orchestra was guest-led by Gjorgi Dimcevski, and Storgårds (pictured above) will have won it new friends and cemented his reputation as an advocate of thoughtful modernity. It’s not often a piece ends so quietly and peacefully that you find yourself listening to the micro-minimal hum of the air conditioning, and then the sounds of traffic as you make your way homeward, but this was one of those.

Anyone’s who’s been asked ‘Dad, can I borrow the car keys?’ will know how Apollo felt, and of course his forebodings were justified


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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