Erik Nielsen and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra Make a Fine Contribution to Wien Modern

AustriaAustria Wien Modern (4) – Gruber and Staud: Colin Currie (percussion), Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Erik Nielsen (conductor). Konzerthaus, Vienna, 15.11.2015. (MB)

HK Gruberinto the open… (Austrian premiere)

Johannes Maria StaudZimt: Ein Diptychon für Bruno Schulz (Austrian premiere)

Two works by Austrian composers received their Austrian premieres in excellent performances from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Erik Nielsen. HK Gruber’s into the open…, for percussion and orchestra was written as a tribute to David Drew. (Drew died during its composition.) The opening section is still, full of suspense. I read later Gruber’s description of it as a ‘slow, meditative processional, as if the soloist is walking through a “pitch landscape”,’ which seems to me a description as beautiful as it is accurate. Colin Currie, as ever a supremely musical and assured artist, had mostly tuned percussion to deal with as he walked through that landscape. I thought at the time of it as an orchestral backdrop, with strong echoes of Berg. The feeling of suspense was powerfully maintained, as much a tribute to Nielsen’s conducting as to Gruber’s writing. Eventually, full brass chords, which might have come from Weill, announced a new section. ‘Partway into the single movement span,’ I subsequently read, ‘I heard of the death of David Drew and this influenced the course of the rest of the piece, but the first section now seems to be a premonition of what the work would become.’ Balletic, Prokofiev-like music was next, or soon, up, Currie weaving his percussionist’s web around it. Gruber is quite right to point to his twin qualities as ‘precision time-piece’ and, in slower, lyrical music, being ‘more like a violinist, cellist, or even a singer, drawing out sustained melody from the percussion instruments’. Old dances sounded, but never quite as pastiche; there was no doubting the Viennese quality of the music, even if it were Vienna ‘of a certain age’ rather than ‘Wien Modern’. A Stravinsky-like passage caught the ear. The music was easy to listen to, but interesting to listen to as well.

In the second half, we heard Johannes Maria Staud’s Zimt: Ein Diptychon für Bruno Schulz. I was a little unsure why an orchestral diptych for a Polish-Jewish poet should be called Cinnamon, but after reading on the train home, learned that it must have been a reference to Schulz’s reminiscences of childhood, Die Zimtläden, published in 1934. Reading that and other works by Schulz clearly made a great impression upon Staud; he writes of him as ‘like a meteorite’ and a ‘visionary’. In performance, opening percussion, of which there is much in Staud’s piece (five instrumentalists, I think, including a timpanist), formed something of a connection with the first half. An orchestral passage put me in mind of the drowning music from Wozzeck, the harmony quite similar, the orchestration less so, but undoubtedly virtuosic. Syncopations seemed in relatively conventional fashion to denote, or at least to suggest, unease. Riotous music evoked, for me at least, the world of Boulez’s orchestral Notations. The music disappeared – upwards. Presumably far from coincidentally, the second movement opened with an unmistakeable series of tonal descents. Again, there was no doubting the virtuosity of Staud’s handling of the orchestra, nor the virtuosity of the performances from all concerned. Downward glissandi continued to be prominent, counterbalanced by their inversions. Some of the material sounded similar to that of the first movement, but transformed by its context. Again, there was a good deal of riotous Notations-like writing; but this was a riot constantly changing in nature, the writing and performance as detailed as they were exuberant.

Mark Berry


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