Album review: Substantial HK Gruber disc from Colin Currie and the BBC Philharmonic

I admit it, I have a huge crush on percussion concertos. For a genre originating only from the latter half of the twentieth century, save a few exceptions, there has been a considerable amount of intriguing forays into the scheme by several prominent composers over the past coupe of decades, resulting in a delightfully diverse, ever expanding body of repertoire.

The initial impetus for many of those marvellous composers to enter the genre has often come from great performers. Over many years now, the fabulous Scottish percussionist Colin Currie has been the primus motor for a wealth of new percussion repertoire, from solo pieces and chamber music to full-scale orchestral concertos.

On his new album, fourth for his own label, Colin Currie Records, distributed by LSO Live, Currie performs the two percussion concertos by HK Gruber, of which the more recent one, into the open… (2010) was written for him. Coupled with Gruber’s 1982-83 take on the medium, Rough Music, the two concertos stand out in their compelling invention and invigorating musicality.

Worlds apart from one another, both works make a huge effect on the new album. Teaming with Currie, the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena and John Storgårds, provides committed performances of Gruber’s orchestral fabric in both cases, setting the stage for solo percussion to shine out in full splendor.

Premiered at the BBC Proms in July 2015, into the opening… is cast in continuous twenty-five minute symphonic arch. The score opens, in the composer’s words, with ”a slow, meditative processional, as if the soloist is walking through a ‘pitch landscape’”.

The soloist sets the music softly in motion with vibraphone, marimba, cencerros, howl gongs and plate bells, joined by harp, strings, and two piccolos. We enter a dimly-lit realm, a forest of sounds, with the leaves slowly vibrating in gentle, early-morning breeze. Long shadows lie over the dark-hued soundscape, gradually taking shape and hue.

As the multi-coloured percussion fabric gradually unfolds, instrumental groups are woven into the texture; sustained strings, flute ostinati and brass interjections appear, coloured by harp and timpani.

Eight minutes into the score, the opening procession paves way to the first orchestral burst, briefly setting the whole soundscape alight, before plunging into another forest trail, lead by drums and gongs, echoed by brass. Marimba and strings join, as the musical tensions grow ever more tactile. Dexterous rhythms ensue, engaging the soloist and the orchestra into swinging dance patterns.

As the vibraphone takes over, with drums, the orchestra adopts some gorgeous big band sonorities, before the score launches into full-scale symphonic climax, resolving into one final dialogue between the solo drummer and brass, interrupted by sustained strings, emerging again and again, seemingly out of nowhere and, finally, bringing the score to its enigmatic close.

Paying tribute to David Drew, the Director of Publications at Boosey and Hawkes who passed away in 2009, into the open… is served wonderfully by the superlative performance recorded here. Currie’s command over the solo part is ever admirably nuanced and tremendously committed. With his outstanding musicality and technique, the solo lines obtain terrific sense of fantasy, clad in vibrant detail.

With Storgårds, the BBC Philharmonic convey Gruber’s multi-faceted orchestral textures with sensitive conviction, ever in perfect accord with their soloist. From the delicate, quasi-impressionistic opening to the symphonic big-band sonorities, the BBC musicians provide a wonderful rendition of the orchestral part.

Having this ravishing take on into the open… added into the recorded catalogue of percussion concertos is a joyful affair. The live take from the Royal Albert Hall world premiere comes off well on disc, thanks to focused engineering and sensitive balancing.

Colin Currie portrait by © Marco Borggreve

Written some thirty years earlier, Gruber’s Rough Music still lives up to its name. Cast in three movements and lasting twenty five minutes, the score is a gripping instrumental drama for orchestra and the soloist, who plays marimba, vibraphone and timpani, alongside a wide array of pitched and unpitched percussion.

The idea of a percussion concerto was suggested to the composer in the 1970s by Gerald Fromme, the Principal Timpanist of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, where Gruber was Co-Principal Double Bass.

”In my early career, when my tonal music was distinctly unfashionable, I would rather write a concerto for a friend who would love a piece, than a symphonic work for critics or audience who didn’t want to hear it. If you have an engaged performer there is a special chamber music intimacy that goes beyond virtuosity and this inspires the orchestra in turn – then you have the best conditions for an ideal concerto performance”, the composer later told David Allenby in an interview.

Gruber’s words could also be used to describe the December 2013 performance by Currie and the BBC Philharmonic from Bidgewater Hall, Manchester, recorded here.

The first two movements of Rough Music, titled Toberac and Shivaree both refer to rituals with medieval origins, where various forms of noise-making was used as means of expressing disapproval for those violating social norms upheld by the community.

In Toberac, the solo line is distributed between marimba and vibraphone, whereas Shivaree opens with a cascade of unpitched percussion. Both movements inhabit sonic realms of their own, established on the very first bars. The rhythmic profile of Toberac is set by solo marimba and echoed by the orchestra. Halfway through the movement, the soloist switches to vibraphone, resulting in a change of tone and mood in the orchestra too. The movement closes with a poignant section for marimba, accompanied by gorgeously brassy orchestral textures.

Shivaree adopts a more agitated tone, as the soloist strikes the beat, igniting a heated musical argument within the orchestra. An introspective section for vibraphone ensues, with sublime accompaniment, followed by another furious tableau for drums and vehement orchestral fabric. In the final section, the music cools down to an extended elegy for vibraphone.

In the third movement, Pour Henri Sauguet, au tombeau de Monsieur le Pauvre, the solo marimba leads a peaceful ceremony, based on two musical quotes, from Erik Satie and Henri Sauget, respectively, only to be gradually flooded by the orchestral noise. Yet amid all the turbulence, echoes from the tranquil opening keep surfacing, more or less distorted, perhaps, but there nevertheless. With a parading mayhem-of-a-coda, the movement lands upon its closing note.

A performance of gripping intensity, enthralling drive and extended emotional sphere, with aching lyricism, menace and caustic wit, Currie, the BBC Philharmonic and Mena provide the listener with a series of quasi-operatic scenes, each profoundly engaging and thoroughly ravishing.

In terms of engineering, Rough Music too is well served here, yielding to a wondrous sonic documentation of Gruber’s admirable musical invention. Coming in the heels of two outstanding Steve Reich albums and a brilliant collaboration with Håkan Hardenberger, Currie’s fourth release on his own label makes a substantial addition to the catalogue, one not to be missed.

BBC Philharmonic

Juanjo Mena, conductor

John Storgårds, conductor

Colin Currie, percussion

HK Gruber: Rough Music (1982-83) – Concerto for percussion and orchestra

HK Gruber: into the open… (2010) for percussion and orchestra

Recorded at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester in December 2013 (Rough Music) and Royal Albert Hall, London in July 2015 (into the open…)

Colin Currie Records CCR0004 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio  

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