‘I want to be authentic and I want to communicate.’
In any other art form, such aspirations might be accepted as customary – even taken for granted – as vital to the creative impulse for some practitioners. But in post-war Central European ‘classical’ music, they amounted to an act of defiance against the ideological norm; a determination to stand against the prevailing doctrines of the ‘right’ aesthetic concerns and the ‘right’ ways to compose then emanating from self-appointed authorities based in Darmstadt, Germany and, later, at IRCAM in Paris. The speaker of those words, Heinz Karl ‘Nali’ Gruber, known professionally as HK Gruber, is not so much an iconoclast, however, as simply a composer and musician who wished to go his own way. Not only has he succeeded in doing so against enormous pressure, but he has risen to become one of the most singular and respected composers, conductors and performers in Europe today.
Gruber’s music is renowned for its irrepressible energy and madcap humour; a distinctly Viennese blend of burlesque cabaret and dance-band jazz within a rich, post-Stravinskian, post-Bergian world of playful tonality and dazzling instrumental skill. The music is full of allusions and references, and is brilliantly wrought – even utilising the odd serial technique in subtle and surprising ways. But it is neither pastiche nor wistfully gazing backwards. Nor is it simply fun, for all its often zany delight and extrovert delivery. For in Gruber’s music, the grotesque and the surreal are never far away, and a genial, child-like directness goes hand in hand with a fierce pungency underlining a real existential terror.
Bregenz Festival’s theme this year of ‘Bittersweet Vienna’ was entirely apt regarding Gruber’s oeuvre. Part of the irony is that Gruber has often escaped the attention of his native city, and yet he has found his own ways to acknowledge and transform the hefty baggage of musical history and tradition that continues to weigh it down. And so Bregenz, with its unique vantage point amongst multiple borders on the shores of Lake Constance, was the perfect place from which to mirror back to the capital one of its distinguished own.
Gloria von Jaxtberg (Gloria – a Pigtale)
Vorarlberger Landestheater, July 31 2014
Music: HK Gruber
Libretto: Rudolf Herfurtner / English translation: Amanda Holden
Mahogany Opera Group / Director: Frederic Wake-Walker
CHROMA Ensemble / Conductor: Geoffrey Paterson
Cast includes: Gillian Keith / Jessica Walker / Andrew Dickinson / Charles Rice / Sion Goronwy
The Bregenz Festival celebration of Gruber pivoted around the world première of his opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods, at the lakeside Festspielhaus. But before I saw this significant new work, there was a chance to remind myself of his unique, satirical style from an earlier period, with a performance of Gloria von Jaxtberg (1992-94) at the Landestheater in Bregenz itself; a smaller, more intimate venue more suited to the chamber scale of the Mahogany Opera Group, who had brought this high kitsch, high camp production fresh from its première and tour in the UK.
Wittily translated into English as Gloria – a Pigtale by Amanda Holden, the performance here combined English song and German dialogue, which latter greatly entertained the audience with its Wiener Würstchen gags and added local allusions. Our heroine is a (dumb) blonde pig-in-a-wig, who falls under the spell of a dastardly butcher, but who eventually finds true love with Rodrigo, the wild boar who comes to ‘save her bacon’. Director Frederic Wake-Walker piled on the slapstick with singing hot-dogs, sausage onesies and buckets of pink, tutu glitz, while trashy Christian evangelism met Kermit the Frog amid nods to ‘50s Americana – all in deference to Gruber’s superbly jazz-inflected score. The cast scrambled their way amusingly through the chaos, relishing every ‘cows at the Mootel’ moment – and Gillian Keith combined a vacuous grin with a perky voice to make an ideal Gloria. But the hyperactivity sometimes came at the expense of ensemble cohesion; dramatically and vocally that is, not instrumentally, as the CHROMA ensemble under conductor Geoffrey Paterson were consistently alive to Gruber’s biting precision. On stage, however, the frenetic action, whilst anarchic fun, barely allowed the complex, sophisticated score or the performers room to breathe.
Gruber’s music has moments of almost Kagel-like absurdist delicacy within the oompah, dance-band frame, but these tended to get lost amidst the mania. His Orwellian parable would also have benefited from a ‘less is more’ approach; yes, the comedy on the surface of Gloria is slapstick, but at deeper levels, that morphs into a profounder, more disturbing evocation of much darker irrationalities. Surely, the final ‘lesson’, that ‘married life is not all it’s cracked up to be’ is hardly the deepest point being made in the piece, nor the one which we might ultimately carry from it. But maybe for some – and I’d have been fascinated to see the response of British audiences – Wake-Walker’s over-arching slogan ‘the opposite of love is sausage’ worked on some level to convey those deeper themes.
For me, however, the problem with going all-out for bonkers laughs in Gloria, as this production seemed to do, is that the theatrical element becomes perversely comforting rather than challenging of the audience – which carries the further risk of flattening the deeper motifs and ironies into 2D. At any rate, greater space could have been made for a blacker and more alienating sardonicism beneath the rapid-fire puns and Looney Tunes costume changes. There was one moment which rang with such potential – and, interestingly, it involved a rare silence and a corresponding intake of breath from the audience; it came towards the end, when the butcher (a suitably leering Andrew Dickinson) finally reveals his true, deadly intentions with an axe strike to the table on which Gloria is literally rolling in her own illusions. Appetite, lust, vanity and power all satirised – not sanitised – in one swift blow.
Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales from the Vienna Woods)
Festspielhaus, August 3 2014
Music: HK Gruber
Libretto: Michael Sturminger after the play by Ödön von Horváth
Wiener Symphoniker / Conductor: HK Gruber / Director: Michael Sturminger / Stage and Costume Design: donmartin supersets / Lighting: Olaf Winter
Cast includes: Ilse Eerens / Daniel Schmutzhard / Jörg Schneider / Angelika Kirchschlager / Albert Pesendorfer / Anke Vondung / Anja Silja / Michael Laurenz / Markus Butter
Realism and the absurd might be uncomfortable bed-fellows ideologically speaking, but that is by no means necessarily true in art – as the dialogue in Horváth’s play Tales from the Vienna Woods attests. Indeed, as HK Gruber implies, Horváth brilliantly juxtaposes these apparent poles as two sides of the same coin in order to reveal the petty – but deadly dangerous – greed, ignorance and fear which he observed to fuel the lower middle-classes in 1930s suburban Vienna; a phenomenon which continues to resonate across the uncertain Europe of today.
As it happens, as well as the underlying ‘pig-ignorance’ and lurking extremism, Tales from the Vienna Woods shares certain other themes directly with Gloria – not least a psychopathic butcher, an exploration of animal tendencies hidden beneath a civilised veneer, and a critique of various kinds of appetite. But the work, and Gruber’s achievement, is on an altogether different scale from the previous piece. He and librettist/director Michael Sturminger have risen to the challenge of Horváth’s brilliant play to create an important new opera of great expressive nuance and tragi-comic depth. The sheer humanity of Gruber’s music and his sympathetic treatment of the characters despite their shortcomings enhances Horváth’s theatrical intention to give the story an immensely powerful emotional, as well as socio-political, impact.
The narrative focuses on a young woman, Marianne – the altogether marvellous Ilse Eerens; by turn feisty, vulnerable and haunted. Like Gloria, Marianne is looking for love and is desperate to win freedom from her repressive milieu. However, she is a far deeper, fuller and more sympathetic character than our pretty pig and, of course, she is heading for tragedy when she disobeys her odious, controlling father, the ‘Fairy King’, and rejects Oskar, a crass, local butcher, on the verge of their marriage (respectively a commanding Albert Pesendorfer and Jörg Schneider on wonderfully creepy, lyric tenor form).
Marianne runs off with Alfred; a rootless chancer (sung with insouciant finesse by Daniel Schmutzhard), whose intoxicating air of modern liberation soon turns poisonous when he abandons her to bring up their child alone, and to continue his dalliance with Valerie – an obnoxious racist, not without human warmth (sensitively performed by Angelika Kirchschlager). We never get to see Marianne’s son, for he dies of neglect at the hands of his monstrous Grandmother, Alfred’s mother (the legendary Anja Silja in somewhat uncertain voice) before he can be reunited with Marianne and the rest of the family following their tentative rapprochement. At the final curtain, Oskar carries off the distraught Marianne in triumph; he has won his prize after all, whilst she has lost everything.
There have been many versions and adaptations of Tales from the Vienna Woods, including Maximilian Schell’s iconic 1979 remake of the early ‘60s Erich Neuberg film. But Gruber is surely the ideal composer to have turned the play into an opera. Not only is there the Kurt Weill connection, but, like Horváth in the play, Gruber too has previously fixed Johann Strauss II with his parodistic glare (see below for a report on his Charivari for orchestra); a symbol of false Gemütlichkeit in a Vienna continuing to cling to illusions of bourgeois good fellowship, folky cheer, and an aristocratic grandeur long-past and never entirely true. It is not for nothing that Gruber puts Strauss’s zither literally into the hands of the murderous Grandmother.
But it is the loathsome figure of the visiting student Erich who is in many ways key to both the opera and the play – he who refers pompously to Viennese architecture when asked how he finds the city. Here we have a sinister picture of the future; a Nazi in all but name (chillingly performed by Michael Laurenz), who worms his way into the social group with excellent manners and pseudo-artistic sensitivity, but who is given to outbursts of violent and irrational hatred. It is he who manifests the latent fascism of the group, with its willingness to smile for the camera whilst turning a blind eye to the abuse and sacrifice of Marianne and her son in preservation of the old, conservative values. Thus we have the juxtaposition and ultimate conflation of a shiny new modern future with the worst regressive and aggressive tendencies of the past; a toxic combination familiar from totalitarian history, and which is perfectly realised in Gruber’s searingly beautiful and ironically-adept score.
Before this performance, the composer spoke to me about how important Wozzeck was for him in writing the opera, and indeed, Berg is a constant presence within Gruber’s highly personal soundworld: in Gruber’s ravishing orchestral counterpoint and complex harmonic palette; his judicious use of open fourths and fifths to create spacious, suggestive textures (most clearly in the music accompanying the sinister, watchful Oskar); his use of jazz and popular idioms with a languid dissonance – all rendered with intimate understanding by the Vienna Symphony, conducted by the composer. There are myriad thematic echoes, too, of Gruber’s elder compatriot. For example, the nightclub scene in which Marianne is revealed to have been earning her living as an ‘exotic’ dancer at once brings Lulu to mind (as well as some of Lulu’s Third Act confusion with its plethora of characters and split frame action), whilst her pathetic, articulated desire to have Alfred’s child is a sharp reminder of Marie in Wozzeck – except that here of course, it is the son who is killed rather than his mother, who is left to endure an arguably even worse fate than that.
Sex, race and class are all examined in Tales from the Vienna Woods, and prevailing values are found to be riddled with hypocrisy. Marianne at least attempts to transcend her situation, but the inference is that there can be no female emancipation in a world in which men are not only threatened by women’s burgeoning sexual and political power, but caught like rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming industrialisation. The vision is both dark and clear, and the pessimism complete. However, just as Berg lifts the suffering of Marie and Wozzeck onto a universal, rather than individual, plane, there are at least glimpses of understanding in this picture of a fast-fracturing society – albeit no justification for the characters’ actions; an understanding which Gruber clearly shares with Horváth in his care not to digress on any level from the dialogue, tragi-comedy and hideous caricature of the play.
For here is a society still reeling from the horrors and confusion of World War I – a theme which, of course, also underpins the Berg in its setting of Georg Büchner’s much earlier play, Woyzeck. Indeed, to my mind Gruber could afford to take further cues from Berg in cutting some of the dialogue from his opera which, as it stands, is a good deal longer than Wozzeck – and unnecessarily so, as Gruber’s music is more than capable of conveying Horváth’s intentions with integrity. For example, the butcher’s assistant might be a useful character in the play, but adds nothing to the discourse in the opera, whilst the ‘confession’ scene could quite happily be truncated yet still retain its message of a callous and venal Church.
However, these are minor niggles. That Gruber’s opera should première in the year we commemorate (as the Bregenz Festival did) the hundredth anniversary of the onset of the Great War is poignant indeed – and on that basis alone the work needs to be heard in the UK. For in Tales from the Vienna Woods, Erich represents a new and terrible kind of youthful certainty born of the moral turpitude and mass vindictive cruelty that lingered across so many countries – including Britain – in the wake of the war. Indeed, Erich – a German – directly blames Austria, through a local elderly veteran, for their countries’ disastrous defeat.
The new king for Erich and others like him is rationality – but of what nature is this rationality? The new capitalism may be bringing wealth to a rising class of self-made men, but it is cold and unfeeling at best, and the mechanised politics of National Socialism gathering momentum is a twisted parody of Enlightenment aspirations to a free, rational and equitable society. The irony is that, lurking behind this new worship of the power of reason, is a very real irrationality born of terror; soon, of course, in fact to spiral completely out of control. And here lies the ultimate power of Gruber’s whirling parodistic score, which comes resolutely from the present even as it looks back to that recent dark age of European history. For if it was beyond Horváth’s characters to see themselves in all their fear and ignorance and not-so-petty wrangling, how can we sure that we ourselves are doing better in that regard today?
In case we might be tempted to distance ourselves from the events on stage, Sturminger cleverly melds past and present in locating the opera in a recognisably early twentieth century Viennese yet universal contemporary setting. Simple naturalistic designs and beautifully lit transparent screens evoke the ordinary with minimalist power as the tragi-comedy unfolds – for comedy it is on many levels, if very bitterly so. As we look into and through that unfolding narrative, the backdrops in certain scenes are particularly effective in quietly prompting us to question what is real and what illusion; for those apparently still photographs of various landscapes turn out in fact to be moving films. Look closely at that lake and you’ll see tiny waves and bobbing objects, while that country vista has a lorry just visible in the distance, travelling silently along a road. Where that road leads for Marianne seems inexorably predetermined in this shocking and very moving piece. But where it might lead for us today in the audience is, Gruber seems to be suggesting, entirely up to us.
Music and Poetry
Curator, Chansonnier and Conductor: HK Gruber
Seestudio, August 3 2014: PHACE Trio / Wiener Concert-Verein
Bernard Gander – schlechtercharakterstücke
HK Gruber – Three Songs from the Musical Spectacle Gomorra
Friedrich Cerha – 1. Keintate
Das Leben am Rande der Milchstrasse (Life at the Edge of the Milky Way)
A sitcom-opera in seven episodes
Werkstattbühne, Aug 1 2014
Music: Bernhard Gander
Text: Johannes Heider and Christa Salchner
No celebration of HK Gruber can be complete without hearing his extraordinary voice, so it was a pleasure to attend the first of a series of three ‘Music and Poetry’ concerts at the Seestudio on August 3rd, in which he featured as chansonnier and conductor. Gruber had also curated the event, and chose to present two Austrian composers from a younger and older generation alongside his Three Songs from the Musical Spectacle Gomorra (1976/1991).
It was the PHACE Trio which opened the evening with a bravura performance of Bernhard Gander’s schlechtercharakterstücke of 2008 (terriblecharacterpieces). Gander was born in 1969 and comes from a generation of composers for whom the idea of any barrier between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ culture is frankly ludicrous. This is not to say that his music lacks seriousness of intent. Indeed, some might say that Gander’s ‘sitcom’ opera, Das Leben am Rande der Milchstrasse (Life at the Edge of the Milky Way), which had received its première at the Werkstattbühne on August 1st,† took itself rather too seriously in its pseudo-philosophical examination of the jargon, bureaucracy and soul-destroying officialdom of modern life.
Gander had described this work as a ‘witty and morbid mixture’ of the two genres of sitcom and opera, designed to be mutually complementary. Whether the result is as innovative as his publicity claims is open to question – after all, the notion of ‘soap opera’ is but a sleight of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s hand away. But the score, at least, was striking in its metal-inspired industrial grunge and deep-pitched acoustic growlings – a soundworld superbly echoed here in this performance of Gander’s ferocious trio for violin, ‘cello and piano. I suspect both the string players’ bows would have needed rehairing after their tremendous, attacking performance. There was lots of fortissimo, with vaguely-pitched note clusters and glissandi intersected by violent outbursts and sudden fragmented gestures. Highly effective, imaginative stuff – and not lacking in conventional notions of timbral and textural contrast.
Following the trio, Gruber’s performance felt gentle – almost quaint – by comparison; the sight of him conducting the intrepid members of the Wiener Concert-Verein whilst facing front to narrate the solo part was certainly beguiling. And Gruber was on thoroughly entertaining form with his inimitable Sprechstimme blend of drunken melodrama, falsetto hoots and quasi-profundo grunts, bellows and rumbles; all just this side of unhinged – and yet very, very sane. His Three Songs were dispatched with an easy virtuosity by all (barring some dodgy violin intonation), encompassing a stylistic range from lounge jazz and cabaret to a sideways tilt at Stravinsky; the figure of Le Rossignol jauntily propped up in the corner with a skeleton said it all.
Centre stage was then given to a very distinguished figure in the form of Friedrich Cerha (b1926); a composer most celebrated for his brilliantly sympathetic completion of Act 3 of Berg’s opera Lulu, but who has written a number of excellent works in his own right. A dazzling performance of his 1. Keintate for narrator and ensemble ensued which, despite Gruber’s extraordinary unflagging energy, ultimately felt just too long with its 50-odd contrasting sections. But the audience clearly relished Cerha’s own, firmly Austrian combination of post-serial contrapuntal writing with dark and witty cabaret and Viennese folk music. The piece is full of clever wordplay – the title is a marriage of ‘cantata’ and ‘Kein’ as in Ernst Kein, the author of the text. Apparently, it is often performed with a backdrop of coloured slides depicting what Cerha describes as ‘expressive, poetic or also sarcastic pictures of Viennese types and scenes’. I can imagine that these would greatly help to carry the piece, rather than relying on Gruber to do so through sheer force of personality – however impressive he may be at the task.
† A production by PHACE and WIEN MODERN, in co-production with Bregenzer Festspiele and the Wiener Konzerthaus. Delivered with panache by a capable cast, amongst whom Bibiana Nwobilo and Bernhard Landauer were outstanding. Directed and conducted with admirable clarity and assurance by Nicola Raab and Simeon Pirenkoff respectively.
Wiener Symphoniker in concert: Festspielhaus, August 4 2014
Conductor: Claus Peter Flor / Trumpet: Jeroen Berwaerts / Banjo: Mats Bergström / Accordeon: Claudia Buder
HK Gruber – Charivari
HK Gruber – Busking – a Concerto for Trumpet, Accordeon, Banjo and Strings
Franz Schmidt – Symphony No. 4
The final event of my visit to Bregenz was a concert given by the Vienna Symphony under the marvellously sure and sensitive baton of Claus Peter Flor. Here was a chance to hear yet further important aspects of Gruber’s work alongside a symphony by Franz Schmidt which has long been deserving of acknowledgement in the UK as a work of surprising power and subtlety (for further information about the piece, see my review of a performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales last October).
Gruber’s Charivari (1981-3) was bound to feature in any orchestral programming around the première of Tales from the Vienna Woods. For in it the composer parodies the music of Johann Strauss II: specifically Strauss’s Perpetuum Mobile op.257. Gruber describes the piece as an ‘Austrian journal’ in the sense of a satirical pamphlet (of which there is a strong tradition in Vienna going back to polemicist Karl Kraus and beyond), and here the orchestra realised his burlesque energy with intelligence and appreciation. Strauss’s well-known bass ostinato and twirling polka rhythms were whipped along as if seized by a manic dance-partner on a ballroom floor, determined to shake them loose from their bourgeois foundations.
There was partnering of another, more unusual kind in the following piece, Busking – a Concerto for Trumpet, Accordeon, Banjo and Strings (2007). Over the years, the concerto form has become central to Gruber’s orchestral output (the prospect of his writing a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax is enticing) and it seems a perfect outlet for his keen dramatic sense in its pitting of soloist against ensemble. Here, perhaps inevitably – and despite Flor’s attempts to balance the instrumental forces – it was the trumpet which dominated (superbly played by Jeroen Berwaerts), with accordeon and banjo providing a kind of anti-continuo in textural contrast. However, each performer – from soloist to ensemble – captured an improvisatory feel in disarming contradiction to the notated preciseness of Gruber’s score. With constant changes of colour, character and inflection, layers of notes were piled on layers of notes in a crescendo of deceptive anarchy. For however crazily complex Gruber’s music might sometimes appear, his scores are always composed with rigorous attention to detail, and a directness of expression lies at the heart.
How different are the oft-zany trumpet solos in Gruber’s Busking to the yearning, elegiac ones which open and close Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4! It was here, in this mammoth, 4-movement but continuous fifty-minute work that the Vienna Symphony excelled. Their sound was rich and clear, making the most of the fine Festspielhaus acoustic, and Flor sculpted each phrase with terrific structural awareness. Indeed, he gave the piece a compelling, almost narrative, arc; pinpointing Schmidt’s subtle motivic ingenuity in a performance which combined a lightness of touch with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.
Schmidt is a composer who, in his own way, came to embody Vienna’s split, bittersweet personality and who, despite being utterly different from Gruber in so many respects, nonetheless also belies the fairy-tale of Vienna’s gemütlich surface in terms of his career and aesthetic. Hearing this man’s music, with its backwards gaze to the Vienna of Bruckner and even Schubert, felt most poignant alongside that of Gruber; a once-renegade and perhaps now prodigal son of that troubled and mysterious, yet most fertile and magnetic of capitals. But more poignant still for me on this occasion, was realising that the concert was taking place one hundred years to the very day since Britain entered into the war against Germany and Austria.
Following that war, nothing would ever be the same again for anyone who lived through it, and as Gruber’s Tales from the Vienna Woods shows, succeeding generations are still struggling to come to terms with its fallout and the enormous social changes which ensued, both good and bad. As if in some kind of elemental acknowledgement of the moment, as the symphony drew to an intense conclusion, an incredible thunderstorm became audible overhead, as rain pounded in torrents on the roof of the Festspielhaus. It was all most extraordinary – somehow cleansing and uplifting – and it made for an unforgettable close to my visit to a very special Bregenz Festival.
original illustration by Dean Lewis
With thanks to Wales Arts International for their generous support.