H. K. GRUBER (b. 1943)
3 Mob Pieces (1968/1999) [9:28]
Busking (2007) [30:56]
Kurt SCHWERTSIK (b. 1935)
Divertimento Macchiato, Op. 99 (2007) [27:02]
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/H K Gruber
rec. May 2009 (Busking) and November/December 2010, Öbrero Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS-CD-1884 [68:27]
There is something about Austrian eccentricity or individuality in contemporary music which is hard to define, but once recognised is highly infectious. A place filled with yodelling, schrammelmusik, alphorns and innumerable types of folksy dancing could be the only place to throw up names such as Werner Pirchner and the ‘Third Viennese School’ collaborators H K Gruber and Kurt Schwertsik. I am a huge fan of their teasing intellect and irrepressible sense of humour and the surreal.
The term MOB was coined by Kurt Schwertsik as part of the 1960s ‘MOB art & tone ART’ ensemble. Gruber’s 3 Mob Pieces are originally for interchangeable ensemble, but were arranged for Hardenberger in 1999 in their present form. These short pieces are eminently accessible, being descended from works such as Stravinsky’s neoclassical Dumbarton Oaks and jazzy Ebony Concerto. Full of artful harmonies, rhythm and counterpoint, these are fascinating jewels which are endlessly entertaining and deliver a great lift of mood every time I hear them, especially when played as well as here.  
The trumpet concerto Busking has appeared before on the BIS label (see review), with the same soloist, same orchestra, and the same conductor. With the same timings and recording date I think we can safely assume it is in fact the same recording, though no mention is made of this in the present release. Perhaps BIS-CD-1781 wasn’t selling too well and they decided to breathe new life into what is after all a terrific performance of a superb piece. With accordion and banjo included with the string orchestra the work has moments of Kurt Weill-esque pop-ness in the jaunty opening Presto. The beautiful second movement Largo sees the soloist playing the more gentle flugelhorn, the banjo adding pointillist drops of rain to a kind of moody nocturne over which the accordion paints lines of light below Hardenberger’s melancholy melodies. The final Allegro opens with dancing rhythms in the strings accordion and banjo, followed by a cool cadenza, and plenty of “polytonal and polymetrical high jinks” to finish. My only criticism with this recording of Busking is the rather too distant string orchestra, which could have done with a little more presence in the balance, though this might have revealed more about their discomfort with some of the more extreme technical demands of the piece. This is in fact a minor point, with the ear drawn to and satisfied with the novelty and skill in the solo parts.
Kurt Schwertsik’s Divertimento Macchiato was written for Håkan Hardenberger, and the title disguises what is in fact pretty much a full-blown trumpet concerto. The opening immediately throws the name of Stravinsky up into the air, and there are little touches throughout the piece which remind one of, maybe a bit of Bartók here, maybe a bit of Martinů or Milhaud or something else to throw into a melting pot of pungently distinctive associations. The piece is in no way derivative, but stands in a tradition which, as the title suggests, stretches back to Mozart and Haydn, and acknowledges its firm place in a powerful European context. Contrasting moods take us into realms both playful and dark, but the essential mood is one which Malcolm Macdonald points to as “melancholy and defiance” in his booklet notes. This sense of the disturbed and the disjointed lends depth and reflectiveness to even the more jocular movements, the trumpet sometimes a lonely voice, singing or surfing above an orchestra which evokes its own intensity, as with the important Notturno fourth movement. The following Finale has a similar sense of grim fun to some of Malcolm Arnold’s lighter moments, and this is followed by an Epilogo and a big cadenza, “a soliloquy almost Mahlerian in its sense of loneliness and desolation.”
If your fear of contemporary music is the equivalent of crossing a busy autobahn on foot, then let H K Gruber, Kurt Schwertsik and Håkan Hardenberger be your guides. This programme is a kind of rainbow bridge which can take you into new realms by way of works which are new and fresh, while at the same time offering welcoming colours of familiarity and an entertaining lightness of touch. The brilliance of a soloist who can communicate and give the trumpet character as few others can is also by no means the least of many attractions. You may not realise you need this CD until you have it, but once you do it becomes instantly irreplaceable.
Dominy Clements
Excellent stuff: entertaining and inspiring.