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HK Gruber (b1943)

Percussion Concertos

Colin Currie (percussion), BBC Philharmonic
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Label: Colin Currie Records
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Michael George
Engineered by Stephen Rinker
Release date: March 2021
Total duration: 52 minutes 42 seconds

Colin Currie presents the first concerto album on his own label, a pairing of works by the innovative composer, conductor and chansonnier HK Gruber, in recordings made by the BBC in 2013 and at the 2015 Proms series.

HK Gruber—The Artful Anarchist
To write one masterpiece for solo percussion and orchestra may be regarded as an adventure; to write two combines for a colossus. Such is the case for the dual works on this recording, which span the full creative freedom, magic, daring and brilliance of Mr HK Gruber, or ‘Nali’ to those who know him. I would fall under his spell certainly in October 2001 in Leipzig, when we first worked together, but just as likely back in July 1999 when I attended the world premiere of his trumpet concerto Aerial at the BBC Proms, written for our magnificent mutual friend, Håkan Hardenberger. In either event, a scene was being set, longer term, for my very own ‘Nali World Premiere’ at the Royal Albert Hall, in July 2015—the performance of into the open … presented here.

If that work encapsulates the very latest in contemporary percussion endeavour, Rough Music (1982-83), for all its swagger, is an early example of a percussion concerto. For the composer, antecedents were few, with concertos by André Jolivet and Darius Milhaud (a work composed in 1929-30!) named as scant examples of the existing repertoire. A graduate of the Vienna Boys Choir, Nali was at that time seated on the Co-Principal Double Bass chair of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his Principal Timpanist colleague, Gerald Fromme, asked him about the possibility of a concerto. The work that was born of this friendship and collaboration would be an astounding, brazenly ambitious paradigm shift for the repertory, with the taught technical expertise of the composition combining with that audacious and limitless musical scope, featuring genuine daredevil heroics from a fully emancipated soloist.

For myself, immersed in this work for the first time in 2001 and many times since, I always take away a myriad of excitement and delight from the music. Far beyond the bellicose ‘rough justice’ meted out by the mob in times gone by, kitchen utensils at the ready, the imagery and imagination of this work soars wildly and widely, with Rough Music becoming an overarching ruse for marvellous and merry musical mischief. Take the rhythmic games of ‘Toberac’, their impish charm offset by the sweetest, and most graceful, of melodies, that any Hollywood film of a certain era would warmly embrace. The ‘car chase’ (as I call it) for drum-set and orchestra in ‘Shivaree’—with the ghost of Charles Ives in the driving seat, your co-pilot Alban Berg guiding the vibraphone songs that follow. The finale is Nali at his strongest, where he brings many worlds together, forces a crisis by collision and leaves the listener to decide on the outcome. This time, a direct quotation from Erik Satie gets gradually and ghoulishly melted down, then finally smashed into a (real life, for Nali) chance encounter with another french composer, Henri Sauguet, whose ballet music is also represented. There is a feeling of ‘fate’ in the music, chance events creating an impact, the butterfly and the metaphorical musical earthquake.

Fate would take on a more personal and deeply felt role in the creation of into the open … many years later. From my earliest talks with Nali, I became very aware of his immensely close and musically vital relationship with David Drew, a friend, mentor, family as such. There are far too many anecdotes to list (‘tea with milk, a British revelation’, ‘I owe him everything I know about Kurt Weill’) but there was an overwhelmingly abundant affection and respect between them both. My own final recollection of David was a typical one, meeting him backstage at Wigmore Hall after a performance of Kurt Schwertsik’s marimba concerto (shrouded in Mozart and Stravinsky) which had him quite literally jumping up and down with excitement. As Nali, a true believer in the magic of music, and an encyclopaedic knowledge wielded with a child’s delight.

On July 25th 2009 Nali received a phone call from Alexander Goehr, with ‘the message I never wanted to hear’. The loss of his musical other was both sudden and devastating, and he began enshrining him into his current composition. As such, in the final semi-quaver of bar 224 of into the open … do we first encounter David in spirit, as fragmented snippets of Weill’s Alabama Song make their way about the music of his great friend. From there until the conclusion of the music, we hear countless attempts to establish this melody, only for them to be thwarted, interrupted or abruptly cut. At no point do we hear the entire melody—or as Nali told me, ‘the song is gone’.

Eerily, one feels as if the stage had been set for such a development. An air of disquiet haunts the opening ritual for the soloist, as they pick their way through the various pitch-centres of the music, a sculpture in solitude, a processional. From the cauldron of pitches, the percussion staccato sounds get snagged in the orchestration, with each block and bell supported, sometimes gracefully, at other times more tenuously, by different groups from within the symphony. Hesitantly, rhythmic stability gathers and the music moves through a typically metric Nali numbers-game to a more active pacing and we can start to feel the dark dance that underlies much of his music—deep, ironic, bittersweet. For the percussionist, frenzied mallet-writing, over many layers of keyboards, gets diffused by groove-based groupings on the cajón and congas, the soloist getting to, at times, kick back on this otherwise perilously dextrous exploration.

For all the anguish of the conclusion, Nali is very clear about one thing in particular. The work is a TRIBUTE to David Drew—not ‘in memoriam’. And with equal particularity, nor is it strictly speaking a percussion concerto, but more of a symphony with solo obbligato percussion leading the drama, the direction. We can truly hear the core Nali in this music—his own sweetly beautiful combination of tireless perfectionism, served with a reckless abandon. Subversive, controversial, challenging, but above all, honest. Perhaps this is why these works combine so thrillingly in tandem, and why knowing and working with him will remain one of the most inspirational relationships of my career.

Colin Currie © 2021

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