Hidden Agenda [UK premiere]
Berliner Requiem – Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen; Legende vom toten Soldaten
Liturgie vom Hauch, Op.21/1
Über des Töten, Op.21/2
Ferner Streiken: 50,000 Holzarbeiter, Op.19/1

BBC Singers

Daniel Norman (tenor)
Daniel Hyde (organ)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
HK Gruber (chansonnier)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 22 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was to be “A Night of Musical Subversion”. The programme note telling us so rambled through several examples of what the title might imply, concluding that the evening exemplified them all. Subversion of some sort – resistance to ‘official’ versions of more or less anything, perhaps – was certainly in the air.

The evening belonged essentially to HK Gruber, and to Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the biting, plangent words that Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler set to music.

An informal group, comprising Gruber, together with Kurt Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan, to whom Hidden Agenda is dedicated, aimed “to counteract the severity of modern music with an airy sense of humour and a willingness to engage with popular music, including jazz and cabaret”. (Had he lived longer, Weill would not doubt have qualified to join.)

The opening to Hidden Agenda was stunning: four mini-explosions came from nowhere, sounding like rounded, unforeseen burps, closely followed by the petulant tinkling of a bell summoning servants to clear the air.

There was a mishmash of sounds, rising to two or three forceful climaxes, almost as if bye the bye, before subsiding and abruptly ceasing, and a cacophony of styles, abrasive modern plays against traditional Viennese schmaltz, US big-band blaring, swooning from musicals, together with Bergian chromaticism – some half dozen strands, all being played at the same time! Some exercise in counterpoint, this!

Two points of reference: firstly, Mahler said that a symphony should include everything. In Hidden Agenda, everything was there, at one and the same time – busy. In the second, place, I thought of Janáček’s notebooks, filled with everyday speech rhythms and inflexions. Janáček could work with quiet composure in the sparsely populated countryside outside Brno. Think of Gruber doing more or less the same in the daily hubbub of Vienna – and setting it out in a musical score! A piece to rehear.

Frankenstein!! came in its full orchestral version – more impish and full-blooded and, indeed, more grotesque than its chamber-orchestra counterpart. Gruber, as chansonnier, found more stops to pull out, more extravagant gestures to display, more growling and rasping than ever before. He was like some all-seeing gnome amidst the vibrant, living chaos of Vienna past, present and to come, dancing viscerally over the hectic madness of the human condition in the home town of the discovery of neurosis – part of it and yet, somehow, also, grotesquely apart from it all.

Credit to Gruber and the BBC Singers. The fairly moving Weill “Kiddush” had organ accompaniment and a characteristic, rather chilling tenor solo from Daniel Norman. The other pieces were unaccompanied – melodies of fateful and barking sorrow, magnificently brusque. Under Gruber’s tuition, the BBC Singers responded authentically to the idiom of Weill’s and Eisler’s powerful music. Their dark tones and strident, lumpish rhythms held utter conviction, giving force to Brecht’s grim rhymes and terse images.

Musically, I do not understand why Eisler is included in this company. Historically, I do. Incidentally, my German is sufficient for me to know that Brecht’s blunt, earthy declarations were done a disservice by the flaccid, coy translations.

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