Hardenberger/Pontinen, Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture

Did you know that ‘Smile’, composed by Charlie Chaplin for ‘Modern Times’, reached No 2 in the UK charts when Nat King Cole recorded it, and that it was Michael Jackson’s favourite song?

Me neither, until I read the British trumpeter Deborah Calland’s informative programme-note for Hakan Hardenberger’s Wigmore recital. It’s a rare thing for a trumpeter to get a solo Wigmore slot, and this celebrated Swede – for whom Harrison Birtwistle, Hans Werner Henze, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Arvo Part have all created works – was going to make the most of it.

I have to confess that unless it’s in the hands of a jazzman – or centre-stage in Bach and Handel - I have problems with the trumpet as a solo instrument. And when Hardenberger and his pianist Roland Pontinen launched into Enescu’s tone-poem ‘Legende’, the scale of his sound seemed to fill this hall’s supersensitive acoustic to bursting, and it was a relief when he put in a mute to create a reedy, distant tone.

Then came a piece by Hindemith, with whom I – in common with many others – have a different problem. As a composer who was blacklisted by the Nazis, Hindemith is loaded with brownie-points, but the point of his music escapes me: it always seems dry, academic, and gutless. And thus it was with his Trumpet Sonata, designed to celebrate this instrument, and impeccably played – but why bother? The answer, one suspects, lies in the fact that, until recently, very little has been written for solo trumpet.

Relief from this came in the unexpected form of an arrangement of Ligeti’s ‘Mysteries of the Macabre’ by Elgar Howarth. Ligeti’s aim in that anarchic and surreal opera had been to ‘fuse the fear of death with laughter’, and Hardenberger and Pontinen took the instruction as a licence to fool around, very much as free-jazz players used to do in the ‘happenings’ of the Sixties. After blowing a raspberry at the audience, Hardenberger made a similar gesture through his trumpet, and for the ensuing fifteen minutes the pair interlarded jagged snatches of music with nonsense-chatter – and everybody loved it.

Finally they just had fun, delivering Pontinen’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s ‘Histoire du Tango’, and winding up with a medley of film-music including Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’, thus laying Hindemith’s prissy ghost well and truly to rest.