A disaster was narrowly averted before the Auckland Philharmonia’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” concert even began, with Norwegian trumpeting sensation Tine Thing Helseth withdrawing due to exhaustion. Luckily, Swiss-Italian trumpeter Giuliano Sommerhalder generously stepped in at the late hour to save the show, and the orchestra was able to present almost an identical programme, the only substitution being Jean Françaix’s insouciant Prelude, Sarabande et Gigue in for Brent Sørenson’s Trumpet Concerto. While one would have appreciated the chance to hear a work by such a significant contemporary composer as Sørenson, it was hard to be disappointed with a concert containing music-making of such consistent vitality under the very dynamic leadership from young Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen.

Eivind Gullberg Jensen © Paul Bernhard
Eivind Gullberg Jensen
© Paul Bernhard

We got off to a slow-burning start with Haydn’s easy-on-the-ears Symphony no. 34 in D minor, possibly his first in a minor key. The long opening movement (unusually for Haydn, a slow and mournful initial movement) lagged a little, each phrase seeming somehow disjointed from those around it without much sense of forward momentum. This shaky first impression was luckily not borne out over the next three movements, much briefer, each breezier and more energetic than the last. Gullberg Jensen took the second at quite a fleet pace, contrasting well with the dignified Menuet and the dance-like final movement. A sunny, almost-Italianate glow permeated the orchestral sound, gleeful woodwind solos shipping merrily throughout. The Auckland Philharmonia's way with Haydn is always a pleasure, affectionate shaping of his melodies combined with an overall buoyancy of tone that is most effective.

Haydn’s immortal Trumpet Concerto was originally composed to exploit the techniques available to the new “keyed” trumpet developed by his friend Anton Weidinger. This instrument allowed trumpeters to play chromatically throughout their entire range, most strikingly allowing for melodies to be written into the its middle and lower registers. Sommerhalder's full, glowing tone rang out splendidly in the extroverted moments but he also knew when to draw back to a well-maintained piano without losing body of sound. His forays through Haydn's athletic outer movements were spectacularly in tune, showing a dash and aplomb in his runs that seemed simultaneously highly focused but also totally relaxed. The cadenza to the first movement took us on a harmonic journey intriguingly far from Haydn's usual soundworld, always anchored by Sommerhalder's impeccable sense of pitch and rhythm. Also particularly impressive was the precision and crisp articulation in the oh-so-catchy last movement but he was equally adept at sculpting the sustained lines in the liltingly melodious slow movement. The orchestra played no mere accompanist role, little touches like the flutes in the first movement teased out beguilingly without taking centre stage away from the soloist.

As the name suggests, the Prelude, Sarabande et Gigue of Jean Françaix harks back to the Baroque, but very much from a 20th century viewpoint, with the orchestration having something of a whiff of Disney Technicolor to it. A revision of his Sonatina for Trumpet and Piano, Françaix's style here is very approachable, mixing elements of neo-classicism with the impressionism of Ravel. Both solo and orchestral parts call for a certain glib wittiness of feeling which Sommerhalder and Gullberg Jensen provided in spades. It must be admitted that Sommerhalder was less secure technically here than in the Haydn – a false entry near the beginning and some moments of insecurity in the sections of flightier passagework gave this away. Nevertheless, Sommerhalder had an appropriate lightness of touch for the work that was matched by the orchestra. The gorgeous Sarabande movement, played with the trumpet muted, made for a delightful reminder of this rarely-heard composer. In both concertante pieces, the balance between the orchestra and the bright solo trumpet was effortlessly achieved.

In the second half, Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 in A major proved a masterly demonstration of the interpretative skills of our young maestro in which he took much of the joyous precision of his Haydn and combined it with a compelling strength and even savagery. We opened with a weight of tone that was surprising after the light and buoyant first half. Gullberg Jensen's charisma on the podium was everywhere matched by a compelling sweep and drive, the initial dotted motifs sharply articulated. Here is an artist who knows how to create a moment with any number of slight shifts or tempo and touches of rubato without losing sight of the overall shape of the music. The orchestra responded like a well-oiled machine, taking every minute change in stride and playing with a muscular leanness that was magnificently suited to their conductor’s propulsive conception.

As usual, the solo oboe playing of Bede Hanley deserves singling out for praise. After this bracing introduction, the solemnity of the slow movement was well-rendered though it remained true to its Allegretto tempo marking. Gullberg Jensen always allowed sufficient relaxation in the trio to contrast it from the scherzo section but the real climax was the tightly-controlled, barnstorming rendition of the last movement. Lunging forward at quite the breakneck speed, this final Allegro con brio was real edge-of-your-seat stuff though in its suppleness it never seemed hard-driven. The strings in particular brought a throbbing violence to this movement, yet somehow never skimped on beauty of tone. The concluding surge was exhilarating in its dashing propulsion, a fitting end to a show that brought out the best in both orchestra and conductor.

****1