For many people, the very words ‘classical music’ can evoke aloofness. Whilst I don’t think that the attire of the highly talented violinist, Nigel Kennedy, (often featuring the colours of his beloved Aston Villa FC) necessarily makes the music more accessible; it is equally easy to see why a platform of performers all togged up in evening dress can act as a barrier. First impressions are important, and something that looks too formal risks alienating what might otherwise be keen ears. Underneath it all, though, they are all flesh and blood like the rest of us: what really matters is how the personality connects with its audience.
It is in that context that I want to share my admiration of the trumpet playing of Wynton Marsalis. Born in New Orleans in 1961, his playing covers every field of the musical genre, be it jazz, Funk, big band, baroque or classical – all with equal skill, empathy and virtuosity. Music runs in his family: his father was a jazz pianist, and three brothers play saxophone, trombone and drums between them. Marsalis has an exceptional gift, which you will see in this clip of the final movement of Hummel’s trumpet concerto; and bear in mind that this is a film of a live performance, there is no comfort of the second chance which is available in a recording studio. The clarity is astonishing, note perfect from start to finish, all conveyed with apparent ease.
You have to feel sorry for Johann Hummel. Anyone whose dates of 1787-1837 clashed so closely with Beethoven’s of 1770-1827 was always going to be up against it, and the reality is that very few came away with a really solid legacy, Franz Schubert (1791-1828) being the clear front runner. Hummel and Beethoven had their spats, although they were reconciled at Beethoven’s death, and he was also a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. He had a good start: his father was a conductor, and he had two years of piano teaching by Mozart, making his first public appearance at the tender age of nine. He was a very talented pianist and prolific composer, especially for the piano. His music was well received and widely performed in his lifetime; and Chopin, about whom I shall write soon, was definitely influenced by him. It was not long, however, before his popularity waned and nowadays it is the trumpet concerto which gets the most airing.
A piece which is overplayed can sometimes hide its mastery – as, I would argue, has been the case with Mendelssohn’s 1st violin concerto – unless it is performed by someone right at the top of their game. Hummel’s trumpet concerto may fall into this category, but when played like this, you can only sit back with wonder. Marsalis delivers a masterclass in technique, breath control and musicianship, without the slightest hint of showmanship. No offence to the other great virtuosos of this instrument, but I don’t think any of them can hold a candle to this in a live performance. You may not be able to view the clip here, but the caption will take you to straight to its slot on YouTube. I could have attached another, but I simply wasn’t prepared to compromise – Marsalis is one cool dude.