Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 52: BBC Symphony Orchestra – H K Gruber @ Royal Albert Hall, London

23 August 2006

When a concert beginning at 10 p.m. is subtitled ‘a night of musicalsubversion’, the audience has every right to recoil in its seats.

Thankfully H K Gruber ensured this was a concept to embrace gladly ratherthan struggle with, as he led us through a programme of extraordinaryemotional range.

The centrepiece was his musical calling card, Frankenstein!!. Fullydeserving of the extra exclamation mark, it is subtitled a ‘musicalpan-demonium’ – not a pretentious description in any sense, as it cannotproperly be described in any other way.

Gruber was the exuberant soloist, billed as ‘baritone chansonnier’. Butin reality that was only half the story, as he employed a vast array ofmusical props and hand gestures to tell his tale. His vocal asides wereextremely funny, the incredibly low ‘monsterlet dancing round our house’ acomic treat, while the little mouse, the little rat and Frankenstein weregiven appropriate shrieks, catty asides and an unexpectedly richbaritone.

The settings of H.C. Artmann’s verse also included endearing,nonsensical poems about Bond, Batman and Superman, and were dressed inorchestration that ranged from the exquisite to the downright ridiculous and hugely enjoyable at that. Rarely has a classical piece been able tomake the audience laugh so much!

Ideal music for children, although even the most hardy would have beentucked up in bed by the end. Still, there was an appreciative gaggle ofPrommers for the BBC SO’s percussionist to throw his exploded paper bagsat, and later to marvel at the talents of several orchestra memberswielding hosepipes above their heads.

By complete contrast, the UK premiere of Gruber’s Hidden Agendawas a far more serious affair, coming just two days after its worldpremiere with the same forces in Lucerne. Scored for large orchestra andconducted by Gruber from what looked like a huge map, the music was richlyRomantic in a manner recalling Berg or early Schoenberg (and ultimatelyMahler). And though distinctive melodic material was hard to grasp thetextures were skilfully manipulated. As in Frankenstein!!, Gruberseemed overjoyed with the performance – a concert opener of similarproportions to Webern’s Passacaglia, if not quite so structurallyconvincing.

The Gruber sandwich framed a brief, altogether darker section ofsettings by Bertolt Brecht, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’sdeath. Death was a primary subject in the chosen settings by Kurt Weill andHanns Eisler, with Gruber and the BBC Singers throwing themselves into thetexts with vigour. Eisler’s bleak setting of Liturgie vom Hauch wasa stark contrast to Weill’s relatively tender setting of Kiddush, whichfeatured tenor Daniel Norman‘s impassioned vocal. The warmth withwhich the BBC Singers sang the canonic verse was most affecting, though theinevitable problem of balance reared its head with Norman, the singers andthe sonorous Albert Hall organ.

In a sense it was a shame these more than pertinent texts wereovershadowed by the zany Gruber, but it would be a real killjoy that deniedhim centre stage after such a performance. Most people left with a smile ora laugh – the evening of musical subversion suddenly less daunting than itfirst appeared.

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