Huw Morgan and the Modern Trumpet

573995bk Trumpet1

MAXWELL DAVIES: Sonata for Trumpet & Piano. ENESCU: Légende. HONEGGER: Intrada. HINDEMITH: Sonata for Trumpet & Piano. MARTINŮ: Sonatina for Trumpet & Piano. C. WILLIAMS: XX Mountains of Abstract Thought. LIGETI: Mysteries of the Macabre: 3 Arias (arr. Howarth) / Huw Williams, tpt; Patricia Ulrich, pno / Naxos 8.573995

This is the first volume of a projected series of CDs featuring 20th and 21st-century works for trumpet. I applaud this effort but am a little chagrined that it has to be done this way as if these were freak works that could only be collected together on CDs in this series, but this is where most classical musicians’ heads are at: firmly up the butt of the past.

Well, at least Welsh trumpeter Huw Morgan is a risk-taker, although when you’re discussing such older composers as Enescu, Hindemith, Martinů and Honegger, all of whom were dead by 1963, it’s hard to call such works “modern” except in their harmonic concept. Morgan is principal trumpet of the Sinfonieorchester Basel, a founding member of the brass ensemble Septura and assistant lecturer at the Musikhochshule Luzern. Solo highlights include concerto appearances with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic and Irish Chamber Orchestra.

It’s quite interesting to hear Peter Maxwell Davis’ Op. 1, written in 1955 for his fellow Royal Manchester College of Music students Elgar Howarth and John Ogden. It’s not at all in either of his more familiar later styles, but rather an atonal piece with sharp, clipped rhythms à la Stravinsky, yet an interesting work nonetheless. The slow second movement is the longest at 2:54, and Morgan plays it with great elegance and a warm tone. There is much in his playing that reminds me of young Gerard Schwarz, who was the greatest classical trumpeter I’ve heard in my lifetime.

Enescu’s Légende, written in 1906, just barely qualifies as a “20th-century” piece of music. It is, in fact, in the late-Romantic mold, albeit with some modal harmonies borrowed from Rumanian folk music. It’s a nice piece, small n, but not much more than that. Kind of in one ear and out the other. Though only 6 ½ minutes long, it seemed to go on forever and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Lots of triple-tonguing required in it, though, so I guess it’s a showpiece for those listeners who enjoy such things. Honegger’s 1947 Intrada is more interesting, but rather short (4:27). It’s in a neoclassic vein and, again, increases the tempo to let the soloist indulge in triple-tonguing.

Hindemith’s 1939 trumpet sonata is al altogether meatier piece, with interesting themes and development sections. By this time, however, I had come to realize that Williams is a trumpeter who is much more focused on producing an excellent tone and flashy technique than one who does much of anything in the way of interpretation. Every note and phrase of each piece on this album, though beautifully played, sounds exactly alike. He is a superb technician but not much of an interpreter. On the other hand, pianist Patricia Ulrich is both a lively player and a fine interpreter, shaping her phrases with exceptional care and sensitivity.

Martinů’s Sonatina for trumpet is even more interesting and engaging than the Hindemith. Here, although he allows the soloist some flashy passages, Martinů weaves the flashiness into the ongoing musical structure. It’s a superb piece from start to finish, even including some muted passages for the soloist. At the halfway mark, Martinů builds up tension via some remarkable fast passages for both trumpeter and pianist, which keep the music developing and again engages the listener.

Christopher J.G. Williams (b. 1972), a name unknown to me, provides us with the only 21st-century work on this CD. It begins as a lyrical, spacious piece, more in the vein of what has come to be known as “ambient classical” music, pleasant but unimpressive. It does, however, become more animated with more triple-tonguing for the soloist. Once again, however, it’s just gingerbread around the edges and not the meat of the music itself.

We end with a trumpet transcription of three arias from György Ligeti’s very strange opera, Mysteries of the Macabre. It’s excellent and even funny music, of course, and again pianist Ulrich is excellent. Morgan plays with a beautiful tone, as ever.

This was a difficult CD for me to review, not because I really disliked some of the music but because Morgan is such an indifferent interpreter that I can’t honestly say whether or not the pieces that left me cold are really that uninteresting or just if he was. That’s the case nowadays, however, with a great many modern classical musicians. They have the chops but not much feeling for music. That being said, more than half the pieces on here were really interesting as music. I only wish Morgan had more to give us.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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