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HK GRUBER (b. 1943)
Zeitstimmung (1996) [38:35]
Rough Music (1983) [26:06]
Perpetuum Mobile/Charivari (1981 rev. 1984/1999) [13:25]
HK Gruber (chansonnier)
Martin Grubinger (percussion)
Tonkünstler Orchestra/Kristian Järvi
rec. Vienna, February 2005, October 2004.
BIS SACD1681 [78:06]

You couldn’t invent someone like HK Gruber. Nothing, I suspect, pleases him more than discomforting the pretentious. He shakes up complacency. I love the motto “Life is too important to be taken seriously”. It could certainly be Gruber’s, too, because under the mayhem, there’s purpose. He revives a Viennese and German tradition that used anarchic satire to make serious comments on society. Needless to say, the Nazis clamped down on such subversion! His work also harks back to the radical cabaret world that Erik Satie loved so well.
In true Gruber tradition, I start at the end. Perpetuum Mobile/Charivari began as music for a film about Austrian history. Naturally, the music was built around Johann Strauss II’s Perpetuum Mobile, the epitome of Viennese frou frou insouciance. The film dealt with the Austrian inability to face its recent history, so this choice of theme was more appropriate than ever. It’s music that runs seamlessly without beginning or end, and especially without stopping to consider anything else that might not fit. It’s the sort of tune that invades your mind so you can’t get it out of your head however hard you try. Gruber takes Strauss’s ostinato and develops it with trombone, crashing cymbals, edgy trumpets and huge bass drums. The waltz continues, but takes on a sinister tone, being played alongside a military march, both slightly akilter. It’s wonderful heady music that doesn’t just refer to Austria, but updates the original in the light of modern music. Strauss thought his original was a musical joke: Gruber mischievously plays along too, but with a wry irony.
Gruber chose the title Charivari for his update. Charivari was a satirical magazine in Second Republic France. It also refers to a village custom whereby people drive misfits out of their village: the unthinking mass versus the individual. It doesn’t matter who’s “right” or wrong, it’s plain, mindless bullying. It’s relevant to those who stood up against the Nazis in Austria and were driven out for their sins. But, as Gruber notes, such things happen in all communities. While he was writing Charivari, then, Gruber further developed the ideas into his percussion concerto, Rough Music This grows directly out of the ritual of the Charivari, where domestic objects such as pans and trays were banged in a strident percussion offensive outside the homes of those whom the villagers wanted to drive out. The cruelty was further enhanced by putting the village cats in small cages, so they’d wail in terror, as they didn’t know what the mass hysteria was about.
Significantly, two of the three movements in the piece are given titles, of regional variants of the custom, Toberac in the Basque country, Shivaree in the US deep South. Although they have titles, they are variants of the whole, just as the parts of a symphony might be given descriptives like “andante”. As Gruber dryly notes “ the twentieth century has discovered more effective – and more barbaric – forms of achieving a comparable objective”. In these first two movements the soloist doesn’t appear as the lone hero, as in so many other concertos. On the contrary, he is the means by which the various percussion parts exist, even if they are working against each other. In contrast, the orchestra’s lyricism represents another world beyond the cacophony, the vibraphone providing a contrast to the percussion. The final part, also called Charivari, is, however, quite different. Gone is the manic chromaticism and violence. Instead, Gruber’s written a lyrical, soothing but still lively piece in which what’s left of the percussion plays a bell-like melody. The section is recognisably based on a waltz, but a waltz by Erik Satie, “Monsieur le Pauvre”, the ultimate outsider.
To appreciate Zeitstimmung on this recording, it helps to know Frankenstein!!, one of Gruber’s seminal works, or at least understand its importance in Gruber’s world of imagination. Texts in both works are by H.C. Artmann. Artmann’s poetry inhabits a vivid complex world of characters and events, constantly evolving as if they had lives of their own. Here we have Kaspar the sinister weirdo, back up to his tricks. Once you become familiar with them, names and scenes take on extra colouring beyond the particular work being performed. It’s an intricate but endlessly rewarding imaginative world – alas, now silenced by Artmann’s death. Gruber performed Frankenstein!! at the 2006 Proms, and a recording has just been released, which will be reviewed in due course.
Artmann’s world, though, is meant to be unsettling, not predictable. He piles up words and images to create deliberately equivocal effects. For example, “a piano playing moor from a courtyard of the casbah of Moscow”. Then there are textual repeats, like leitmotivs in Wagner, repeating and varying: “as he open’d the latch of the ark”….and several songs later, “he undid the door latch and enter’d the room of his life” (it’s much better and more striking in German). That’s why Gruber calls himself a chansonnier not a “singer”. The sound and shape of the words is music in itself: his job is to tell the story as atmosphere. So he exaggerates his “rrrr”s like a raconteur in a cabaret, or, dare I say, an itinerant story-teller in places without printed books. His fruity Viennese tones convey an irrepressible gemütlichkeit, but it should be obvious by now that, with Gruber, that sort of thing is double-edged. He picks up and plays with the music inherent in the poetry, curling his lips around vowels, snarling out growls - see, Artmann’s verse is affecting me, too.
Musically, too, it is more tightly constructed than would immediately meet the ear. Gruber, for all his love of mayhem, is a seriously able craftsman. The cycle is unified by musical references, just as the text is, and is based on a single twelve note series. The clarity of the orchestration heightens the “sparkling, spectral sonority” - as the booklet puts it so well - of this panoramic yet claustrophobic masterpiece. No one can, or will, perform this music quite like this again, so grab this recording for the authentic Gruber experience.
Anne Ozorio




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