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From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 6

Squeezed between Salzburg and the last few dates of the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival, I am back again at the annual ARD Music Competition. The 2011 lineup of instrumental categories includes Piano, Trumpet, Oboe, and Organ, back for the first time in twelve years. Being a bit late to the party, I got into the game only on Saturday the 3rd, for the second round of the trumpets in the BR Studio 2.

Up fourth, but the first trumpeter I’ve got to hear, was Jonathan Müller (Germany) performing Hans Werner Henze’s “Sonatina for Solo Trumpet” as the required modern piece (other choices being Luciano Berio’s Sequenza X and neoclassical Jean Françaix’ Sonatine pour trompette et piano [apparently the withdrawn original version]) and the flashy Concert Piece No.1 by Vassily Brandt, ‘founder of the Russian trumpet school’. During the Brandt piece, Müller featured a jarring fortissimo, penetrating, glaring sound—as if in constant fanfare-mode. A fact ameliorated by attempts at mezzo-piano, but not qualitative changed… with precise attacks, but scared ones. He certainly has the ability to play what he needs to play, but not—my feeling—the excess control to play with it. The same approach worked better for the short Henze three-part 1974 Sonatina (Toccata, Canzona, Segnali), not the least because the soft and sharp mutes used take the edge off his tone a bit. With modern music, it is either extremely difficult to tell qualitative differences because of excessive complexity, or extremely easy when one interpretation sounds like just-notes and another like music. The former can be expected in a competition setting (notoriously unmusical events, as far as music-events are concerned); unfortunately it sounded largely like a technical exercise here, too.

His countryman Simon Höfele chose Françaix as the ‘modern’ piece, except that Françaix rarely sounds modern. The Sonatine seems difficult without sounding like an Étude in the first part, has a melodious and pretty, muffled lyrical quality in the second, which is followed a brief cadenza-like unaccompanied part (least satisfying, musically, by far), and finally a romp & circumstance of a bumbling ride with gaiety before letting fly. A satisfying piece, seemingly well played. A bobble in his valiant opening and a few mistakes couldn’t distract from a beautiful and sensitive rendition that made sense out of the occasionally hollow Brandt composition. Höfele’s pleasing, comfortable tone was combined with a beautiful real piano; trumpeting in lavish velvet. He might have hit a few percent fewer notes than his predecessor, but played in a different league musically and expressively. The gratuitous runs were integrated into the fabric of the Konzertstück—and no longer sounded gratuitous. Far and away the best performance of the five I heard.

Frenec Mausz (Hungary) performed the Oskar Böhme Concerto in f-minor and the Henze Sonatina: the former in confident, harmonious, and one-dimensional sound; maudlin-Christmasy in the slow movement, and eventually with a turn toward the strident in his tone. The Henze was tackled with hesitation, not gusto, neat staccato attacks, but the prescribed pianissimo was nonexistent and the dynamic range generally flattened.

Senne LaMela (Belgium) began with the Henze. A promising start with nicely separated notes and only the occasional struggle descended into a lot more struggle during the second movement before emerging most successfully in the (apparently least tricky) third movement, getting more out of the dynamic markings than any of the other four Henze-performances I heard. If he had only forgone the circus trick of playing the piece from memory he might have made yet even more out of the work. With brilliance to his tone and playing, he threw himself at the Brandt-piece, which might have been thoroughly impressive had it not been marked by too many mistakes and slips. His confident, perhaps too-confident, demeanor on stage meant a calm, no-nonsense, gimmick-free presentation and he thankfully desisted from the eye-rolling before notes, as if hitting the next one depended more on the grace of G_d above than the musician himself. Too bad the brilliance eventually detracted more than it added, because the ears sought (in vain) differentiation, subtlety, and occasional softness… something trumpets are in fact able to deliver.

Takashi Shinozaki (Japan) performed the same works as his Hungarian colleague. Very colorful with the soft mute in the Henze Canzona, with soft and true pianissimos and harmonica-like sounding flutters, he turned in the most interesting second movement of the Henze, falling short only on the last few bars where the diminuendo from ffff to ppp came out as a move from mezzoforte to mezzopiano, at best. The Brandt, performed with a different trumpet, was not 100% on pitch, largely note-correct, but didn’t sound internalized (understandable, that, actually), and altogether taken a touch slower and seemingly more nervously than his predecessors did.

More tomorrow from the Organ & Oboe semi-finals.