HK Gruber records Kurt Weill’s Symphonies for BIS

3.5 of 5 stars


Der Silbersee (1932-33) [excerpts*]

Symphony No.1 (1921)

Symphony No.2 (1933-34)

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

HK Gruber (conductor and vocals*)

Recorded at Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden, 16-21 August 2021

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: March 2023
CD No: BIS-2579 [SACD]
Duration: 59 minutes



It might help the wider dissemination of these works, all newly available in officially approved editions, if we could settle on nomenclature and other variables. The first piece, an epic drama subtitled Ein Wintermärchen (A Winter’s Fairy Tale), is sometimes The Silver Lake – Silverlake is more applicable to the show as posthumously recast for New York with an English libretto by Hugh Wheeler and lots of different music. The earlier Symphony goes by several aliases including Symphonie in einem Satz and Berliner Sinfonie, the score’s title page having been lost during its sojourn in a convent. The first known orchestral performance was not until 1958. The Second Symphony, or Fantaisie symphonique (which someone at BIS prefers), is more familiar to mainstream music lovers but by no means as ubiquitous as it deserves. As with certain Russian symphonies one can never be sure what percussion will be encountered in it. Most recordings go with timpani alone, presumably on the grounds that the other instruments were only added later at the behest of Bruno Walter, its original conductor in Amsterdam, 1934. Either way the composition remained sui generis. The composer’s early death ensured that he never went back on his decision to reinvent himself in the United States.

Direct competition for this particular pairing of the symphonies is offered by the conductor and scholar Anthony Beaumont on Chandos where the modest weight of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is comparable to that of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Beaumont retains the tinkling and clatter which gives No.2’s finale a jollier profile. He also seems a little more inclined to acknowledge the music’s smoother, more traditional aspect elsewhere. HK Gruber, veteran provocateur, is all for sharp rhythms, harsh climaxes, eccentric voicings and spotlit solo lines. In the slow movement I was unsure whether the sympathetic emotive force of the argument was being downplayed deliberately. The booklet note makes reference to a kitsch-lite funereal tango. String tone is wispy, much as if Thomas Dausgaard were still at the helm essaying one of his attenuated retreads of Romantic fare. Perhaps the piece was bound to sound acerbic in the modestly sized Örebro Concert Hall. Still, it would be a stretch to imagine Bruno Walter’s Concertgebouw Orchestra balancing lines and textures in comparable fashion. Does that matter?

HK Gruber was in the cast when Markus Stenz and a riper sounding London Sinfonietta recorded their ‘complete’ set of Der Silbersee for RCA in the 1990s. Here he takes on two of the numbers assigned to other characters. His vocal declamation is as idiomatic as could be found today but being eightyish one should not expect the fullness of sonority that keeps Ernst Busch’s account of ‘Der Bäcker backt ums Morgenrot’ (The baker bakes at crack of dawn) sounding fresh as well as authentic. Gruber provides a spoken introduction to ‘Was zählen Sie für einen Rat’ (What would you pay for some advice) in comically fractured English.

The First Symphony, the filling of the sandwich here, is a stormy student effort, principally expressionist in manner. It predates Weill’s turn towards a more personal neoclassicism informed by the ideals of his teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, but is always an intriguing listen. The more frenetic passages evoke Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. That said, if you’ve access to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, you can hear Kirill Petrenko and his big band giving the invention more coherence, legroom and colour. Older recordings of the piece are arguably obsolete now that James Holmes has corrected, in the words of his publisher, “a host of incorrect pitches, dynamics, and blatant errors”. I’m not sure what that says about Schott Music. Petrenko and Gruber are blazing a trail for these latest thoughts.

How to sum up? This is lively, committed, stylish music-making, nicely documented (although the song texts and translations prove rather small). Running time is not especially generous and you may or may not prefer a mellower, more cautious approach.

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