Guts and Glory
St John’s Smith Square. 15 April 2016
The young period instrument group Spiritato! is one of the most exciting arrivals on the UK early music scene. Their most recent and most ambitious project is Guts and Glory, exploring the relatively little-known repertoire of military and art music for natural trumpets, which they contrasted with more reflective (or, at least, quieter) works by the same composers for strings and continuo. A key feature of this performance was that the trumpets were not only valveless, but also had no finger holes to assist in the tuning of notes. These finger holes (or ‘venting’ or ‘nodal’ holes) are in any case a relatively recent innovation, and may not have been used in early natural trumpets, at least not for the purpose to which they are now used; to make the tuning of the higher harmonic notes easier. Indeed, it seems that the original holes found in some instruments were actually place at the anti-node, rather than the node, and were therefore intended to silence the tricky notes altogether, rather than to try to bring them into tune.
Not surprisingly, it was the distinctive tuning that results from valveless trumpets was a major feature of the evening. When played in their lower register (confusingly for organists, called the principale), the five or so available notes form an arpeggio, are pretty much in tune, and are generally used for fanfare-like passages. But once you get into the high clarino register where something akin to a scale can be played, mathematics and natural harmony spectacularly fail to coincide. Several notes are extremely flat, to the extent that on first hearing, some almost sound like a very sharp lower note. One is very sharp, and has to be adjusted down (or indeed, up, for the upper semitone) by apparently doing clever things with the players’ lips. In this group of five trumpeters, it was generally the highest two players who had to struggle with these musical complications. But once you got used to the sound, they added a gorgeous colour, particularly in contrast to the strings, tuned far more accurately to a modified meantone temperament with much purer intervals.
Their St Johns, Smith Square concert opened in spectacular style, with three trumpets ‘blaring’ (a real instruction from the original manuscript) out from the galleries in extracts from Magnus Thomsen’s 1599 collection of military signals, a reminder of the roots of much Renaissance and Baroque music for trumpets. We heard the signals to rouse the troops, mount-up and march followed by a Tocceda. That trumpets like this were not just for ‘blaring’ was evident in the subtle winding flexibilities introduced by the three players. The programme continued with contrasted pieces by Biber and Schmelzer composed in the early 1670s, including the formers’ extraordinary Battalia with its replication of battlefield sounds and drunken soldier songs. Both were based in Salzburg at the time, and they made good use of the large number of military trumpeters in the Court of the Prince Bishop. The antiphonal effects that both composers would have used at the time were replicated by having the trumpeters to one side of the central continuo group, attempting blasting out the strings on the other side. Most of the pieces used the technique of switching from brass to strings, only combining the two towards the end. The layout of St Johns, Smith Square was sideways to the usual format, with the players positioned on one of the side walls, the audience arranged in a fan around them.
Both Biber and Schmelzer were supervised by Pavel Josef Veyvanovský, a noted trumpeter and composer whose music reflected the change from military to courtly use of the trumpets and a more subtle playing style. This was heard in his five-movement Serenada XXVII. The evening ended with an earlier composer from the Viennese Court, Antonio Bertali and his 1665 Sonata Sublationis. He showed the Italian influence on German music of the period, and also an early example of virtuoso trumpet composition. He wrote the music for the marriage of Ferdinand III (one of the more musical Hapsburg Emperors) and a nice link to an earlier piece, Schmelzer’s moving Lamento sopra la Morte Ferdinandi III.
The playing was excellent throughout, not least because much of the writing was virtuosic. The non-trumpet pieces frequently featured violinist Kinga Ujszászi, the orchestral leader, notably in one of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas. She also did very well in keeping the disparate forces together. One amusing observation (at least to me) was the stance that the trumpeters took, holding their trumpets with one hand, the other resting on their hips and with a half-turned, front knee-bent posture that I gather is referred to in the trade as the ‘heroic’ stance. I am afraid that it reminded me of early Greek sculpture and this cartoon.
Spiritato! photos based on originals by Zen Grisdale.