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H.K. GRUBER (b.1943)
Cello Concerto (1989) [23’10]
Zeitfluren (Timescapes) (2001) [23’12]
Manhattan Broadcasts (1962-64) [10’00]
Robert Cohen (cello)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/H.K.Gruber
Recorded in Orebro Concert Hall, Sweden, Feb-March 2002
BIS CD-1341 [57’46]

Described by Norman Lebrecht as ‘a wacky Viennese’, Heinz Karl Gruber has left himself open to a certain amount of ridicule, particularly with his Third Viennese School antics. He is probably best known for his cabaret-style entertainment Frankenstein!, which is great fun, and no one should be put off the present disc by sneering critics or the man’s reputation. All the music here is eminently approachable, even slightly old-fashioned, and at its best is very well crafted and atmospheric.

Undoubtedly the most substantial work is the Cello Concerto, commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Musica Viva at Tanglewood in 1989. The structure is that of a single movement with developing variations. Gruber quickly lightens the rather sombre opening mood by infusions of some of his favourite elements, particularly jazz and light music. The chamber-sized orchestra is used with great delicacy and there is playfulness to some of the exchanges between soloist and featured instruments (such as 12’31). The musical language is always tonal, but the moods do vary enormously between pathos and near-banality, a trait that can be traced back to his Viennese forebears, particularly Mahler. I like the long, smoochy cello cadenza, and there is no doubting that the final B flat minor chord ends the work with (to quote Paul Driver’s note) ‘something like a smile’.

The Mahler inheritance is even plainer in the two Timescapes, and I was tempted to apply a subtitle to the first one (Nightdust) along the lines of ‘Rhapsody on Mahlerian Themes’. We get a slow funeral dirge, rich bed of lower string texture and musings from the cor anglais that sound straight out of ‘Ich bin Der Welt’. There follows a Bergian outburst from the trombone which heralds the second section (Another Day), and here the faster tempo and rather more optimistic mood provide the requisite contrast and a reminder, as the composer tells us, ‘that life goes on’.

The two pieces collectively titled Manhattan Broadcasts (Tammany Hall and Radio City) are, as Paul Driver accurately observes ‘the reflection in a Viennese mirror of American dance band music’. They make a suitably upbeat end to the disc, neither piece being much more than easy listening, and at least Gruber does not attempt straight parody but more a successful fusion of disparate styles.

The recordings are, as usual, excellent and liner notes authoritative. The performances by Robert Cohen and the superb Swedish orchestra, under the composer’s direction, could hardly be bettered. Well worth investigating.

Tony Haywood


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