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H.K. GRUBER (b. 1943)
Frankenstein! (1977) [31:51]
Perpetuum Mobile - Charivari (1981) [13:45]
Dancing in the Dark (2002) [24:47]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/HK Gruber (chansonnier/conductor)
rec. 25-27 February 2005, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10404 [70:48]


HK Gruber is best known as the composer of the celebrated 'pandemonium' Frankenstein!, which has received hundreds of performances and broadcasts worldwide. Here he directs and recites a new version in English, though Chandos offers the original German version as a download. With the formal title ‘A pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra after children’s rhymes by H.C. Artmann, the music goes back beyond these version to 1971 and the Frankenstein Suite, which was a sequence of songs and dances written for the Vienna ‘MOB art and tone ART Ensemble’. Full programme notes by the composer are included in the useful booklet, proving that he writes in a manner as engaging and entertaining as he composes and performs. 

The poet H.C. Artmann has described his verses as ‘covert political statements’, whatever that may mean. To quote Gruber: ‘The monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so. One of the dubious figures in the pandemonium is the unfortunate scientist who makes so surprising an entry at mid-point. Frankenstein – or whoever we choose to identify with that name – is not the protagonist, but the figure behind the scenes whom we forget at our peril. Hence the exclamation marks.’ 

The results are nothing if not absorbing. The combination of entertaining and witty vocal delivery, of somewhat manic, and delightfully pointed orchestral playing, makes a strong impression. The Chandos recording is both pleasing and natural, allowing the orchestral colours to maximize their impression. That said, it remains difficult to quantify exactly what Gruber’s Frankenstein! is supposed to be. It is an odd mixture: part Pierrot Lunaire, part Façade, part children’s nursery rhyme, though with sinister overtones. As performer Gruber clearly relishes his task and is over-the-top. It’s hard to know how a more deadpan approach would feel, since he has tended to keep the musical performances to himself. He still excels in this English version, though many will feel that the more idiomatic inflections of the original German intensify the effect. 

Excellent orchestral playing can also be experienced in the other music featured here. The Austrian homage which is the basis for Charivari is strongly apparent in its first phase, which delivers Johann Strauss II’s Perpetuum Mobile. Gruber then explores beyond this well known and immensely assured style, exhibiting a rich imagination and a ready wit in the process. Again the recording is exemplary. 

Dancing in the Dark is a more recent piece, written in 2002 and first performed at the Musikverein in Vienna the following January. It is altogether darker in both manner and imagery, reflecting the Vienna of Mahler and Berg rather than the Strauss family. This more intellectually demanding work gains immeasurably from the incisive insert note by Paul Driver. In the fullness of time I suspect that it will be recognized as the finest of these various compositions. 

Terry Barfoot 


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