The dances of the Baroque orchestral suite lay at the heart the latest concert in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s “from player to podium” series, with trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger whirling the orchestra through gavottes and minuets from across the centuries with a surefooted lightness.

Håkan Hardenberger © Marco Borggreve
Håkan Hardenberger
© Marco Borggreve

Hardenberger drew out the parallels between the Bach suite, the Haydn concerto and symphony and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The fast movements were uniformly crisp, neatly articulated, with lots of air between heavily phrased-off pairs of notes and plenty of wit, whilst the slow movements were all suffused with radiant calm. The freshness and stillness that Hardenberger brought to the famous, overused Air of Bach’s Suite no.3 in D major made me feel as if I were hearing it for the first time. The same mood was recaptured later in the siciliano-style “Serenata” from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite particularly in the poise of Steven Hudson’s oboe solo. The uniformity of the performance meant however that by the time Hardenberger reached Haydn’s Symphony no. 103 in E flat major “The Drumroll” to end the programme, I felt that we’d heard everything several times before, and wanted him to find something new to say.

Bach’s Suite no. 3 got off to an extremely shaky start, with almost no agreement about the dotted rhythm of the French overture but orchestra and conductor both quickly recovered and happily it was the cheerfully flowing string playing of the fast section that set the tone for the rest of the concert. The two gavottes were sharply angular with weighty appoggiaturas and some deliciously crisp trumpet playing, Richard Martin’s solo – he was clearly not at all inhibited by playing under the baton of the man billed as “the world’s finest trumpeter”.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite harks straight back to the world of the Baroque suite; the opening Sinfonia contains just enough in the way of modernist interjections to remind us that we’re not actually listening to one of the sonatas by Pergolesi and his contemporaries that Stravinsky used as the basis for the ballet score. After the opening two movements, Stravinsky lets a little more of his own voice through, with jerky rhythms and long passages for combinations of wind and brass that recall his earlier Petrushka, and there’s a glorious duet for trombone and double-bass in the Vivo that managed to be both comic and expressive. The graceful Scherzino and Gavotte movements were hugely enjoyable, the latter aided in particular by the busy bassoons who maintained grace and delicacy throughout the relentless arpeggios that form the bass line.

It was the music for Pulcinella that took Stravinsky in the new direction of neo-classicism and he described it as a reflection in a mirror, rather than a backwards look. The affectionate warmth that Hardenberger brought out in the Minuetto finale made it clear that Stravinsky’s music is not a knowing pastiche, but a tribute to the musical past.

The two Haydn pieces programmed tonight show the symphony and the concerto at the point when they have just emerged from their chrysalis of the baroque orchestral suite, and are poised to take flight. As conductor and soloist in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat Håkan Hardenberger looked like a jazz band leader, casually turning to give the beat when he wasn’t playing and leading decisively from the solo line. The relaxed fluidity of his virtuosic solo passages seemed to come from the world of jazz too – the first movement cadenza was mesmerising, and for all the bravura of his playing, Hardenberger never lost his surprising softness of tone and didn’t let the acrobatics distract from the music itself. The orchestra responded to Hardenberger’s graceful smoothness in the opening movement, and they sparkled in the final Allegro, with a good build up of tension and release with each reiteration of the rondo theme and had lots of fun with a well coordinated acceleration into the coda.

Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony begins with a long timpani solo that gives the work its nickname, and the dark chords that follow on the lower strings point in direction of the expressive heights that the symphony as a form would eventually reach, although Hardenberger didn’t really explored this. The variations of the long, colourful Andante were mostly tidy and precise but the relaxed freedom of Bradley Creswick’s violin solo was a nice echo of Hardenberger’s earlier trumpet playing. Hardenberger took the Menuetto right back into the Baroque, with heavily accented, angular lines, and lots of space between notes but created a big contrast with a very smooth legato in the trio section – although he had already done exactly the same with Bach’s gavotte movement. The overall mood of the concert though was so buoyant that a bit of repetition didn’t detract too much from the overall enjoyment as the orchestra cantered through Haydn’s inventive allegro to the symphony's cheerful close.