Every piece of music has secrets. Some are small; the odd surprise as you play through for the first time. Others are much larger, requiring investigation, experimentation and some tough decisions.
Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in Eb Major for Two Trumpets falls into the latter category.
In March, Southbank Sinfonia went back in time for an entirely Baroque programme played largely unconducted with authentic period bows and gut strings. The trumpet section (Etty Wake and I) were given the chance to perform Telemann’s lesser-known concerto, an interesting challenge for a number of reasons…
Horn or Trumpet?
Our first challenge? Working out which instruments to actually play the concerto on! There is a big question mark over what the concerto was intended for: in the original score Telemann writes ‘Tromba Selvatiche’ (‘forest trumpets’), but it is not clear exactly what these instruments are. Some speculate that they were actually more similar to the horn, but it is almost impossible that a horn player could have played the higher solo part at the written pitch. I recently heard a recording of this concerto on horns and both solo parts were, in fact, played an octave lower. It is also puzzling that Telemann would have written ‘Tromba’ instead of ‘Corni’ on the score if he had really intended for it to be played on horns.
Old or new?
Having concluded that the concerto is indeed supposed to be played on trumpets, the options available to us were either the Baroque (natural) trumpet or the piccolo trumpet.
The natural trumpet is played much more commonly nowadays and is shaped like one long, curved pipe with holes in the tubing. A player can cover certain holes with their fingers to help with tuning, but the changes in pitch are mostly created by the tightness of the lips – where the really hard work happens. This can make playing certain repertoire extremely difficult on these instruments. In contrast, the piccolo trumpet is a smaller (octave higher) version of a modern trumpet. Playing this trumpet still requires a lot of tension at the lips, but a smaller mouthpiece and valves make it more manageable in the higher range.
Compared to the more piercing sound of the piccolo trumpet, the natural trumpet may have been more sympathetic to the tone of the gut strings. However, the incredibly high and virtuosic nature of the solo parts meant that we didn’t have much choice but to play on piccolo trumpets. To complicate matters further, although our string colleagues were using Baroque bows and strings, they were still playing at modern pitch (A=440). This in turn raised the pitch of the trumpet parts by a semitone which, although only sounding like a small step up, actually requires a huge increase in pressure. The piccolo trumpets really were the obvious choice.
‘To repeat or not to repeat? That is the question…’
The next challenge was deciding on the format of the concerto. Telemann wrote repeats into the second and fourth movements (the livelier movements of the concerto) and from this it is clear that he was not a trumpet player..! The level of stamina and endurance required by the trumpet soloists to play all of the repeats is immense, and it is for this reason that most recordings don’t include them all.
Nevertheless, our guest Leader Adrian Butterfield was very keen to follow Telemann’s original instructions. It took a lot of practice to develop the strength to play so high for so long, but the extra effort was certainly worth the reward. It was a truly euphoric feeling to successfully reach the end of each performance and the concerto also felt much more balanced with this structure. The acoustics at St George’s Hanover Square (the church that Handel used to attend) were wonderful and really helped the piccolo trumpet sound to blend with the strings and harpsichord.
The process of preparing for this concerto was quite unlike anything else I’ve done. Before even playing a note, Telemann presented us with mysteries which required a remarkable amount of thought and decision-making! Yet, having unlocked some of the secrets of this concerto, the performances felt all the more intense, confident and satisfying.
Find out more about Imogen Hancock here.