Paul Merkelo and “The Enlightened Trumpet”

Jan 20, 2020

The Principal Trumpeter of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra navigates four brilliant and foundational concertos for his instrument, and we've chosen it as our CD of the Week.

Paul Merkelo talks with WCRB's Brian McCreath about "The Enlightened Trumpet":

There’s a fearlessness that comes with the territory when you’re a musician. Doing your job every day in front of thousands of people who are waiting to be impressed is not what many of us would choose to do with our lives. When you layer on top of that an instrument that’s meant to cut through large orchestral textures, which also means that any mistakes or misfires are more than noticeable, that courage necessary to get through the day ratchets up a few extra notches.

This is what it is to be a principal trumpet player in a major orchestra. It’s not that players of other instruments don’t have their challenges and exposed moments, too. But virtually every time a trumpeter produces a note, it will be heard. So, the musicians who hold those positions tend to project (pun intended) a healthy degree of confidence.

And that’s also what one needs if one is to record four concertos that have also been recorded by virtually every great trumpeter since recording was invented, not the least of which is Maurice André. The legendary French trumpeter’s recordings of the concertos by Haydn, Hummel, Telemann, and Leopold Mozart are required listening for any aspiring trumpeter. Enter Paul Merkelo, who, since 1995, has been the Principal Trumpeter of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

He's released three previous recordings, each of them stellar (that’s the kind of player he is). But this is the first that brings together the most iconic works for his instrument. Merkelo calls it The Enlightened Trumpet, evoking the Age of Enlightenment that swept across Europe between the late 1600’s and early 1800’s - the very timeframe in which these four concertos were created.

And you can hear, if you choose to listen to them chronologically, the Age as it was reflected in music, beginning with the ornate and virtuosic baroque stylings of Telemann and carrying on through the experimental lyricism of Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father).

As the Enlightenment barreled through society and culture, technology supported and catalyzed new developments, something you’ll hear in Haydn’s concerto. It was written for a brand-new kind of trumpet, one that vaulted past the limitations of its predecessors through an ingenious key system, allowing every note in every key to be a newly realized musical possibility. As it turns out, Haydn not only created a demonstration piece for this new technology; he also created a concerto so sublime that it’s known as the only trumpet concerto players of other instruments wish they could play....

Only eight years later, Hummel applied his considerable talents to composing for this still evolving instrument. The inspiration of Beethoven’s majestic voice is clear in the broadly landscaped first movement, as well as a more highly dramatized use of the trumpet in a mysterious and even unsettling slow movement. In the end, though, something that veers into the territory of a circus polka rounds the piece out, complete with musical pyrotechnics that dazzle the ears.

Merkelo adds a very special twist to Hummel’s concerto in this recording through a cadenza, that part of a concerto in which the ensemble drops away to leave the soloist alone, assembling various musical ideas into an astonishing final collage. This one was originally played by Timofei Dokshizer, a legendary Ukrainian trumpeter of the Soviet era, and it’s Paul Merkelo’s tribute to one of his musical heroes.

For more about this recording, listen the interview above, in which Merkelo reveals what he learned after trying the keyed bugle for which Haydn wrote his concerto, describes the most physically challenging movement of the entire recording, and details what his own personal connection to Dokshizer has meant to him as a musician.

Check out this performance by Paul Merkelo in WCRB’s Fraser Performance Studio:

Here is more background on The Enlightened Trumpet:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit Paul Merkelo's website.