Chicago debut of masterful duo evokes nymphs and nightmares

By Manasi Vydyanath

It was a concert of brilliant combinations and one uncalled-for interjection—a subtle oration with a hastily added anecdote. The pre-announced, original program was refreshing in its consistency; it made no attempt at combining modernity with antiquity for the sake of comforting temporal symmetry. However, the actual program notes of the evening contained two selections from Ravel’s Miroirs in addition to the pre-announced pieces. While impeccably played, they were consummately intrusive, especially since they were inserted between the excoriating Berio and the operatic Ligeti. They were beautiful works that simply didn’t fit, and thus were unfortunately rendered less lovely in context.

However, the performance was otherwise flawless. The soloists were perfectly matched, and Aleksandar Madzar’s crisp tone anchored Hakan Hardenberger’s flamboyant, brilliant interpretations firmly in the realms of the expressive, as opposed to the overwrought. Their superb blend became very apparent in Enescu’s Légende, where Hardenberger would engage in flights of liquid legato while Madzar would play under him with a pulsating snare-drum-like rhythm, adding firm outlines to the vividly colored soundscape.

The highlights of the evening were arguably the Berio sequenza and the Ligeti piece. Berio wrote a total of 14 sequenzas throughout his compositional career—the first was written in 1958, and the most recent in 2002. Each work pushed the boundaries of the possible for the featured instrument, employing a huge number of “impossible” techniques and novel effects, and making untold demands of the virtuosity of the players. Berio used the sequenzas as a method of “clearing the air,” thus suggesting new artistic directions, both for himself and his generation. They were building blocks from which his larger-scale pieces took motivic material and which introduced directions and techniques that were later used by his contemporaries.

His 10th sequenza was written in 1984 and employs a “silent” piano—the accompanist is called upon to depress certain keys, accompanying the harmonic illations in the trumpet part. The trumpeter plays into the piano as well as out to the audience, calling forth sympathetic resonances over which a melody is traced. The result is a series of echoes and imitations that dance around the main melody like Chaucer’s nymphs, reminding one of an illuminated, medieval manuscript with dryads, satyrs, angels, and gargoyles roaming free about the margins.

The piece is fragile and can easily disintegrate into a series of meaningless sounds if one loses focus and exaggerates the fermatas even to a fraction of a second. The entire concept is one of an integrated flow, and Hardenberger handled it with exquisite sensitivity. His phrasings were seamless, as were his connections between fragments. His handling of the staccati was especially virtuosic, as he would range from a brusque staccatissimo to an accentless quasi-legato that would then meld into a glissando while still staying within the umbrella of the staccato. Such artistically precise enunciation would have been a stunning achievement in the technique of any instrumentalist, but to encounter it in a trumpet—usually more closely associated with color and expressiveness than with articulation—was especially breathtaking.

The Ligeti piece that followed was actually a transcription of his opera Le Grand Macabre for trumpet and piano—a reduction that retains and even surpasses the spirit and excitement of the theatrical original due to the ingenious employment of vocalisms and instrumental timbres in a newly tightened context. Among the other effects were whispers and hushing sounds, creating a vision of lurking specters in the darkness, a portrait of psychosis and persecution, and an air of being followed and dogged by infernal voices. The presentation was infinitely more evocative than a horror-film soundtrack, because of its sheer indistinctness. By their very ambiguity, these effects morphed into every individual’s private and unique nightmares.

However, an interesting problem arose due to the accent of the soloist. About halfway through the piece, an uttered phrase occurs: “That’s…it.” This is meant to be an expression of incredulity, to be articulated as a question: “ that’s…it?” A furious barrage of motifs, sounds, and textures would follow, horrifying the skeptic into silence by demonstrating that what had passed was but a whisper of the monstrousness that was possible. Hardenberger, however, spoke the phrase in a pronounced Swedish accent, which came out as a bland statement, almost as if he were signifying the end of the piece. This prompted some of the audience to start clapping and made the explosive frenzy that came after faintly uncalled-for.

Apart from that minor hiccup, the piece was stunning, a perfect end to Hardenberger and Madzar’s Chicago debut. They form a focused, passionate ensemble, fine soloists in their own right who complement each other and are keenly aware of each other’s expressive merits and competencies. The easy grace that characterized their recital was refreshing. They did not apologize for the fact that their program extended into the thornier thickets of modernism, nor did they try to soften a perceived blow to the sentiments of the audience. They simply presented the pieces as works of art to be savored, critiqued and enjoyed on the universal claims of beauty and expressivity. Ultimately, the debate about the perceived divorce of modern music from the needs of its audience will be decided by performers and performances like these. Art, after all, represents the survival of the most beautiful, regardless of epoch, idiom, or sentiment.