Gruber and Kirchschlager Back Together for Weill

AustriaAustria Milhaud, Weill: HK Gruber (conductor), Angelika Kirchschlager (soloist), amarcord (vocal ensemble), Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 17.11.2014 (SS)


Milhaud                 La Création du monde, op. 81
Weill                       Selections from Der Silbersee
Milhaud                 Le boeuf sur le toit, op. 58
Weill                       Die sieben Todsünden


Set the clock to Weimar time! As composer, conductor and chansonnier, HK Gruber is repeatedly drawn to that interwar moment when the influence of ‘hot’ American idioms became rampant, and modernity was, for a while, a plaything of modernism. Weill and Eisler are his programming mainstays, and Die sieben Todsünden I’ve heard Gruber conduct a few times now. The lure of this concert, then, was the even Berlin/Paris split, bringing Milhaud into the equation.

It was in Germany that the first ever jazz primers were published and courses taught, although the German public understood jazz to be dance music and even devotees weren’t necessarily exposed to the genuine article. Alfred Baresel’s seminal Jazz-Buch of 1925, which became enormously popular and was studied by Berg, was based on sheet music and what the author had picked up from an American student in Leipzig, and as a handbook it isn’t the most reliable guide. It is against this backdrop that Milhaud stands out as the only major jazz-influenced European composer of the period to have actual first-hand experience of African-American jazz, gathered in 1923 in Harlem, where he became fascinated by the jazz pit band of the black musical Liza, virtually cloning its instrumentation and techniques for his ballet La Création du monde. With Gruber, exuberance can win out over balance, but he handled this wind-led score with precision and poise. Never mind that it sounded rather ‘conducted’ for a jazz-connected piece; the ‘roar’ of jazz trope was (consciously?) dispensed with anyway. The big shout chorus, the easiest section to go to town on, was quite contained, and yet had ample presence relative to the jazz idioms and instrumentation elsewhere, which resembled Ives’s idea of ‘pictures-in-sound’; there, but turned to vapour. The work’s elegiac Bachian side was more foregrounded, with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s principal cello emerging suavely when in contrapuntal exchange with solo winds. A more prominent alto sax would have been welcome, but I liked the sound of it joining in on the intricate interplay as if from a distance. Such moments, cross-pollinated to the point of syncretic, lend themselves to a reading as elusive as this.

Milhaud the ethnographer strikes again in Le boeuf sur le toit, more ballet music, this time incorporating Brazilian maxixes and the beginnings of modern samba into a loose rondo structure. Even when programmed alongside and laid bare as a dry run for La Création, it retains a certain charm. Holding back, as Gruber continued to do, added less, however. With fewer dimensions to the music, detachment registers merely as detachment. The Swedes also sounded less than their numbers, in a hollowed-out way.

A touch more boisterous but still buttoned-up, the selections from Weill’s Silbersee were a similar story. A brief sighting of Gruber’s more typical form came when he bounded forward as chansonnier for the third vocal number, launching into his inimitable flustered barking and barely concealing the pleasure taken in a role he seems to enjoy more than conducting. The loving stylistic tribute to Ernst Busch’s renditions of Weill’s and Eisler’s political songs remains pure aesthetic nostalgia, though. From the mad glint in his eye to the sardonic Viennese snarl curled around every syllable, the delivery is less a recreation of the threat-from-below agitation of the radical song tradition than a lovably eccentric turn. But entertaining and endearing on its own terms nevertheless.

With the Weill centrepiece, I made my peace with the orchestra and/or Gruber’s direction thereof. Yes, the restraint was too much on one plane to function as subtly as in La Création, but there was no shortage of drive the last time I heard Gruber conduct Todsünden and that was frankly noisy and out of control, so given a choice between a runaway train and ‘Swedish cool’… And the SCO, which had played solidly all evening, gave a very fine performance. Well-oiled discipline, even when lacking a caustic edge, went a long way here, most strikingly in the moments where Weill abruptly cadences a vamp by mobilizing the entire band into a cyclonic surge.

This is the second or third time I’ve heard Angelika Kirchschlager do this piece and she just keeps getting better, not pushing the character’s split personality too hard, but exploring the idea deeply enough that she can project steeliness and vulnerability at the same time. The two Silbersee songs had exposed a bit of tightness at the top of the register but here the same top notes sounded freer, and across the board she gives the Todsünden a lot of voice, firmly rooting her instrument in the ‘Brechtian operatic’ Fach. It helps that she still has voice to give and is not one of those singers who treats Weill as a source of expedient Mödlrollen.

The Todsünden’s ‘family’ is constituted of a bass in drag and three campy tenors, and the campier the tenors, the better. German close harmony group amarcord exceeded all expectations on that count. Extra points for spot-on line delivery in the fat-shaming song.

Seb Smallshaw

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