Introduction: Crispian Steele-Perkins ("CSP") is
among the foremost modern practitioners of the 'natural' trumpet, and has played
on countless recordings with all of the major period instrument orchestras. He
no longer works for John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists, and grew
tired of having to fly all the time while he was the principal trumpeter in Ton
Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Yet he continues to regularly work with
The King's Consort and Collegium Musicum 90. David Vickers ("DV") spoke to him
about his interest in historical trumpets and performing Handel..
DV: Was Handel always part of your
CSP: Almost my first public appearance
was performing an arrangement for 2 trumpets of "The Lord is a Man of War" from Israel in Egypt in the music competitions at Marlborough College when I
was aged 13.
DV: And you have remained attracted to
CSP: Since his arrival in England in
1711 his music has ALWAYS remained popular. He writes marvellous tunes and
equally marvellous bass lines to accompany them!
DV: When did you
start playing the trumpet, and how did your interest in natural trumpet develop?
CSP: My brother Barry, 7 years older
than I, played the trumpet in a Jazz band at Marlborough. During school holidays
I borrowed his trumpet so much that our parents bought me one. I won the music
competition Brass prize in my first term at school and joined the National Youth
Orchestra of Great Britain. Nearly 3 years were spent at the Guildhall School of
Music & Drama, then 6 months in the BBC Training Orchestra in Bristol - we
called it the "Straining" orchestra. Thereafter, I spent 7 years in Sadler's
Wells Opera, which later became English National Opera. This was where I first
worked with Charles Mackerras in Handel operas.
DV: Weren't you associated with some of
the principal English modern instrument orchestras before period instruments
started becoming more popular?
CSP: I was a member of the English
Chamber Orchestra (ECO) for a while, under Britten, Barenboim, etc., and also
the Royal Philharmonic for 4 or 5 years. Then the "Early Music" scene kicked in,
and I played for Gardiner, Pinnock, Hogwood, Parrott, Koopman, Hickox, you name
it! I really enjoyed the change from "precious" music making and did my fair
share of making THEM rich and famous!! I still greatly enjoy working for Robert
King, Richard Hickox and Peter Seymour.
DV: What particularly memorable
performances of Handel's music have you taken part in?
CSP: The 1985 Westminster Abbey Handel
Tercentenary concert with Raymond Leppard and ECO was live on TV. I encountered
the song "Eternal Source of Light Divine" for the first time here, and
subsequently have made several recordings and innumerable renditions with James
Bowman. But to play any Handel work in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford is very
special, especially Athalia because Handel first performed it there.
Haydn - another of my favorite composers - performed there too.
DV: You must have done quite a few
Messiahs by now...
CSP: In 1991 I did Messiah from
Dublin Castle with Harry Christophers and "The Sixteen", and this was broadcast
live on TV to celebrate 250 years since its composition. But my first wife had
died only days before and my memory of the occasion is obliterated by other
sadder ones. As for the future, the forthcoming Promenade Concert of "The
Coronation of King George II" - devised between myself and Robert King - also
promises to be memorable.
DV: You've made a lot of recordings
during your career. What kinds of trumpets have you used for these?
CSP: Recording Messiah for Andrew
Parrott using a Trumpet by John Harris dating from Handel's time was very
important to me. The instrument was kindly loaned by the Bate Collection,
Oxford, and belonged to the great 19th century player Thomas Harper Senior.
Although it was modified in circa 1830 with a tuning slide, this trumpet has its
original 18th century mouthpiece which is critically important for its
distinctively "noble" tone; the excellent Bass singer was David Thomas. With the
singer Jeni Bern, I recorded obligatti by Handel and Purcell using another
genuinely early "English Slide-Trumpet".
DV: This recording with Jeni Bern was
with your own ensemble called The Handel Players.
CSP: To perform and record with Jeni, I
assembled a band of particular friends calling it "The Handel Players" for sheer
convenience. Maybe this group should have gained a more permanent status? I
don't relish the prospect of trying to organise musicians however much I enjoy
their company. I see others tearing their hair out with frustration - I don't
have any left to tear!
DV: Do you ever get fed up with playing
"The trumpet shall sound", or does it still give you a buzz every time?
CSP: The aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound"
STILL excites me. It is a climactic moment in Handel's best known work and in my
opinion amounts to Handel's own personal testament of faith: " The trumpet shall
sound and we shall be saved". The opening arpeggio figure is a fanfare played
for centuries at the assize courts, usually performed by 2 trumpets in harmony,
to announce the "Arrival of the Judge". Handel's audience would have understood
the symbolism in the music relating to "Judgement" and "we shall be saved". So
this is a very, very moving moment and needs to raise the spirit of the
audience. This is not a moment for Ego, but for God!
DV: How does it compare with the other
famous trumpet and soprano oratorio aria, "Let the Bright Seraphim" in Samson?
CSP: "Let the Bright Seraphim" is not
perhaps such a definitive piece, but audiences love it - so let us be glad of
any piece which enhances the trumpet's limited repertoire of "great" music. It
requires great discipline to maintain high standards in music encountered so
frequently, like performing a West End play for an actor.
DV: As a trumpeter,
I guess you haven't had an awful lot of jobs doing Handel operas.
CSP: Yes, and Handel's operas are
performed too infrequently - but they are a mine of material to an inveterate
arranger and plunderer like myself!
DV: But do you prefer performing in
sacred or dramatic oratorios?
CSP: The sacred oratorios give a solo
trumpeter much greater scope, although some of the best like The Occasional
Oratorio and the Dettingen Te Deum are inexplicably neglected.
DV: Can you describe the kinds of
trumpet you use for Handel performances, and how these may vary from those you
might use for Purcell or Haydn?
CSP: I use similar trumpets for Handel
and Purcell, just as my antecedents did. But the instrument is differently used
by each of them. For many years conductors and editors have tried to mask
Purcell's music sound like Handel's. In my opinion, this is to miss the point.
Purcell's orchestra was very small and the trumpets were played with
extraordinary control and subtlety. Handel's forces were bigger, sometimes very,
very much bigger, and the players needed great stamina and the ability to
"project". This makes totally different demands upon the players; it is the way
the trumpet is blown, not its dimensions that matter. I actually now own
trumpets from the time when Haydn was in London; sadly, I have not found many
conductors as enthusiastic about it as myself. Notable exceptions are Andrew
Parrott, Peter Holman and - perhaps surprisingly - Richard Hickox.
DV: Do you have any unfulfilled
ambitions with Handel's music?
CSP: My quest to do justice to Handel's
music will always remain an unfulfilled ambition. If we could only hear his
orchestra, I wonder if the shock would be a pleasing or a horrifying one?
Crispian's page (Hyperion Records):
Crispian's page (The Early Music
Collegium Musicum 90:
The King's Consort:
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Vickers and Matthew Gardner
August 30, 2020
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