Switzerland Cerha, Schubert Tonhalle Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno (conductor), Martin Grubinger (percussion), Tonhalle, Zurich 13.12.14 (JR)
Cerha: Concerto for percussion and orchestra
Schubert: Symphony No. 9
Friedrich Cerha is not a household name outside his native Austria, where he is widely regarded as the foremost contemporary composer of his generation and now regarded somewhat as a Grand Seigneur. Now in his eighties, his individual style is difficult to categorise or recognise, though occasionally in thrall to the Second Viennese School. He is best known internationally for his version of Act 3 of Lulu.
Martin Grubinger also hails from Vienna and is widely recognised as one of the leading percussionists around – there can be no denying his technical prowess, musicality, sense of rhythm and strength. What was in doubt, sadly, was the impact of the concerto which Cerha wrote for him in 2009 and which was receiving its première at the Tonhalle in this concert.
This was not a work, as is often the case, where he had to dash round the stage from instrument to instrument. Cerha’s concerto is in three movements or parts and in each part the soloist is positioned at three different “stations”, each with their array of percussive instruments. These included ten tom-toms, bongos, log drums, cymbals, crotales (antique cymbals), Chinese cymbals, cowbells, blocks, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, Chinese gongs and so on: you get the picture. As part one commenced, the word cacophony instantly sprang to mind as the violinists inserted their industrial earplugs. I was seated in the hall at the furthest point from the stage, in the balcony, and was deafened. The drum onslaught continued unabated for what seemed like ten minutes and I was grateful for the restful second part, which had a particularly delightful quiet passage, which charmed with multifarious chiming bells, evoking a Swiss cuckoo clock shop. Finally, after some fast and furious (but quite unmemorable) xylophone playing, it was back to the relentless drums and a final thwack on the gongs with Grubinger, his back to the audience, dressed all in black, in embarrassing martial arts pose. Grubinger thanked the audience for its endurance (for that is exactly what it was) before rewarding them with a Ragtime encore which was great fun for all – the audience roared its approval. For the encore, Grubinger had been joined by a number of percussionists from the orchestra and by the conductor, a former percussionist with the Concertgebouw.
Originally, in the season’s programme, this concert was to have featured Shostakovich’s magnificent Tenth Symphony with young up-and-coming Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański: I had been rather looking forward to it. For some reason (unexplained), the work was changed some while ago to Schubert’s Great 9th Symphony (or the 8th as the continentals irritatingly insist on calling it) and there was to be a different conductor. The replacement conductor was Spanish-born Gustavo Gimeno, who recently made quite a good impression in Birmingham. Research revealed that he had been, after his stint at the Concertgebouw, an assistant to both Haitink and Abbado and as from next season will be Music Director at the Luxembourg Philharmonic.
Gimeno never looked comfortable: he looked distinctly nervous throughout and conducted stiffly, and without a hint of a smile. His big chance to make a positive impression on the orchestra and audience was lost. The Schubert symphony should be a joyous and glorious occasion – it is not really a work for a virtual newcomer, it needs shaping and nurturing to come alive. In the hands of Gimeno it was characterless, without a hint of interpretation or insight. Tempi were numbingly uniform, dynamics flat: the music had no chance to breathe. The orchestra played dutifully. Irritatingly and unnecessarily Gimeno played every single repeat.
I do wish I had brought my earplugs.