Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON February 3rd 2020

Toronto Welcomes Gábor Tarkövi​


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Gábor Tarkövi​; Photo

On the afternoon of February 2, 2020, in the Royal Conservatory’s venerable Mazzoleni Concert Hall, the respected Hungarian-born trumpeter, Gábor Tarkövi, made his Toronto debut, joined by the distinguished Canadian pianist Benjamin Smith. This recital was presented by The Royal Conservatory as part of its Glenn Gould School Mazzoleni Masters Series and was sponsored by season sponsor BMO Financial and season media sponsor The Toronto Star.

Tarkövi, who is Principal Trumpet of the Berlin Philharmonic, is an accomplished orchestral and chamber player. Accordingly, this recital was not a showcase of technical virtuosity or stratospheric playing but, rather, an impeccable performance of eclectic repertoire that demands a high level of musicianship. Both musicians demonstrated this admirably over the course of the 1.5-hour recital.

The first half opened with a Concerto for Trumpet in E flat Major by relatively little known classical Czech composer Johann Baptist Georg Neruda (1708-1780). Tarkövi noted that this work is valuable inasmuch as there is not a lot of solo trumpet repertoire from the Classical era. The 1st movement begins with a strong piano introduction, featuring confident, intelligent playing by Smith. The trumpet follows with the first of numerous beautifully melodic statements, highlighting the controlled and sonorous tone, with superb breath control, that characterizes Tarkövi’s playing. The music does not contain a lot of classical ornamentation, but his trills were lively and tight. The 2nd movement featured more lovely melodic themes that soar, with crescendos and diminuendos executed dramatically. The 3rd movement opens rambunctiously with a very complex piano part complementing the arpeggiostic playing required of the trumpet, sparklingly articulated by Tarkövi.

Smith returned to the stage to perform three bagatelles for solo piano from Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, op. 126. This is a collection of short, parlour-like pieces by the master. No. 2 features aggressive, angry-sounding motifs alternating with suddenly quiet, lyrical passages. No. 5 is more tranquil in mood, but No. 6 returns to the alternatingly explosive and contemplative form. For a pianist of Smith’s stature, these are not particularly technically challenging, but Smith’s technique is solid, and he is able to move seamlessly between those moments of ferocious intensity and peaceful calm with great dynamic control and focus.

The final work of the first half was perhaps the emotional centre of the concert for Tarkövi, who clearly admires the Sonata for Trumpet and Piano op. 137 by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) and respects the circumstances in which it was composed. He took time to comment on it at length, noting its special place in the trumpet repertoire as one of Hindemith’s strongest works for the instrument. Written in 1939, the music paints a picture of the darkness that was to become WWII.  He noted that the first movement has two characters - the first is the horror of Naziism, while the second is of the people confronted by that horror. The 2nd movement is an intermezzo that Tarkövi described as being like a child’s joke, but not a happy joke. There is still an underlying tension between a child’s innocence and the reality of the times. In this movement, the piano part is simpler, more playful.  The 3rd movement is more sombre, funereal, with the trumpet sounding like a heraldic voice of coming pain and sorrow. The work ends with a rendering by Hindemith of Bach’s chorale “All People Must Die”. For this work, Tarkövi played a rotary or “German” trumpet, which is played sideways because it uses valves similar to a French horn. A rotary trumpet is said to have a more mellow sound, but I thought that the instrument actually had a more brilliant timbre.

The recital’s second half was a bit less intense, opening with a trumpet adaptation of Glière's Concerto for Coloratura Soprano, op. 82. This concerto was written for a vocal soloist singing wordlessly, so it works well when voiced by the same rotary trumpet used in the Hindemith. The 1st movement opens pensively, but the music has a far more legato feel to it then what we have heard so far.  It is tonally very pleasing music. The piano weaves a complex tapestry of sound beneath the soaring trumpet lines, which are punctuated by precise trumpet entries that lead into descending lines, ending with a long, pure, vibrato-free note. The 2nd movement is more like a show-piece in 3/4 time and very entertaining. Smith played in a much more animated style, and Tarkövi’s sound resonated beautifully in that hall.

Next up was Prayer of Saint Gregory by Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). Originally written for Chamber Orchestra and Trumpet, Tarkövi noted that the 5-minute piece started out as an intermezzo in the composer’s 1946 opera Etchmiadzin. The piece opens with quiet, lush chords followed by an eloquent thematic statement by the trumpet, played with Tarkövi’s usual rich tone with a light vibrato. This performance was a prime example of the controlled, expressively dynamic playing needed to bring to life the composer’s vision when writing the music. 

Pianist Smith took another solo turn at this point with a performance of the 2nd movement, “Semplice” from Piano Sonata No. 4 by American composer/pianist Leo Ornstein (1893-2002). Smith pointed out a fun but true fact, namely, that the 2nd movement was the only movement of the 4-movement sonata that actually exists. Although Ornstein was a proponent of the early 20th century avant-garde, this piece was more like a cross between Ravel and Rachmaninoff - nothing very shocking about it, but the rich, dense chords underpinned a plaintive, heart-wrenching melody line that was sensitively played by Smith. 

The concluding work on the program was the Fantasy for Trumpet and Piano by Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas (1928-2007).  Tarkövi performed this on a different rotary trumpet that had what I considered an even more brilliant sound. This was entirely appropriate, as this work certainly was a showcase for his technical virtuosity, featuring stunningly clear triple tonguing skill in the lightening fast passages contrasted with silky smooth playing in the exquisitely melodic sections. The piano part had a “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” feel to it, played with rhythmic enthusiasm by Smith. After a short pause mid-piece to clear his horn (I suspect unplanned), Tarkövi ripped through the second half of the piece, which again featured complex tonguing and fingering patterns - a real tour-de-force for the trumpet that closed the concert with a spectacular flourish. 

After an appreciative standing ovation from the near-capacity audience, Tarkövi and Smith performed a Hungarian czsardas entitled Hejre Kati by Jeno Hubay. It was an entertaining, exciting, gypsy-like crowd pleaser.  Trumpet afficianados look forward to seeing Mr. Tarkövi back in Toronto sooner than later.

The next concert in the Mazzoleni Masters Concert Series will feature John O'Conor and Beethoven at 2pm on Sunday March 15th 2020 in Mazzoleni Hall.