Dancing in the Dark
HK Gruber (chansonnier)
Recorded in Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester on 25 & 27 February 2005 and 5 & 6 November 2006
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: February 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10404
Duration: 71 minutes
HK Gruber (born 1943) is blessed with a harsh, warm, uningratiating speaking voice, an exuberant talent for composition in many musical styles, a keen ear for parody, an inordinate desire for self-projection and self-advertisement, a ferocious and exacting talent for conducting and the ability to fire those who play with him to perform better than they have ever seemed to do before. He is also the finest conductor alive of Kurt Weill’s music.
“Frankenstein!!” has been introduced to the public several times – as a suite for speaker and intimate ensemble in 1971, as a “completely recomposed” orchestral work with speaker in 1978, as an alternative version for speaker and 12 players in 1979 and, then, as a theatre piece in 1983. A constant feature in all this has been the employment of HK Gruber himself as chansonnier, whether with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, the ensemble ‘die reihe’, at the Espace Cardin in Paris or, as here, the BBC Philharmonic, in Manchester.
We deal with some 18 children’s verses, translated here into English idiomatically. The result recalls Walton’s Façade and Edith Sitwell’s fairly strange poetic experiments in sound. Gruber breathes and snarls the English words through a heavy, sinewy Austrian accent. He relishes the often-grotesque text and makes something quite macabre out of their consonants, emphasising, prolonging and exaggerating them with all the glee of a wizard from a pantomime. Children must love this slightly heavy-handed playfulness with word-sounds. The orchestral backing is spare – very clean and chamber-like; all credit to the BBC Philharmonic: on demand, these musicians can masquerade in styles Mozartean, Prokofievian or just plain smooching in the best Viennese fashion; and I am reminded of the cabaret music by Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. The parody is brazenly self-conscious – and it’s fun to meet Miss Dracula, Goldfinger, John Wayne, the Green-haired man, Batman and Robin, and many others.
Perpetuum mobile/Charivari is scurrying and dark-hued. The Johann Strauss piece is revealed in Gruber’s booklet note as being more serious in purpose than supposed, and Gruber’s musical commentary to follow is even more so. Perhaps this is a morsel exuberantly thrown to those who talk of a darker undercurrent to Strauss’s writing, but continue to play his music lightly, with gaiety.
Dancing in the Dark has two movements and a reference to Fred Astaire. With considerable symphonic flair, Gruber puts on display a rapidly moving panorama of the staples of Viennese musical culture . We hear the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart. We lose ourselves, several times, in the swirl of Mahler’s large, dark orchestra, grappling with huge forces and reaching out to musical depth. We meet up with Alban Berg’s tortured chromaticism and join a post-war jazz-group. Yet, as a whole, the piece is not derivative. I received a sense of Gruber declaring: ‘This is me! All these are me. This is who I am and where I come from. This Viennese past is my present.’
The BBC Philharmonic, following Gruber exuberantly, conveys his emotional world of romantic surge, sometimes assonant, with a silken richness. The recording is superb. Here is much to please and delight – and slightly disturb.