wed 07/12/2016

Hughes, BBC Philharmonic, Gruber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Hughes, BBC Philharmonic, Gruber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Hughes, BBC Philharmonic, Gruber, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

A comic fairytale and Goehr's self-portrait flank Mahler lieder

BBC Philharmonic conductor-composer H K Gruber

“The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow.” And how! The BBC Phil’s composer/conductor H K “Nali” Gruber could not have timed the UK premiere of his Northwind Pictures better. We were ready targets for his shattering evocation of the wind with every device at the percussionists’ disposal and a large hand-cranked wind machine. The boys in the back row had a great night out.

A one-movement piece, it is derived from his comic fairy-tale opera Der Herr Wind (Mr North Wind), successfully premiered by Zurich Opera in 2005. You don’t need to know the story to get something out of the music, but it helps. In order to help a farmer and his wife, the wind, who is not allowed by God to stop blowing and sweeping their crops away, gives them a magic box of food to last forever. It is stolen by monks, so he gives them another box, this time filled with baseball players who will beat up anyone who steals it. However, in the end Mr and Mrs North Wind blow everything away.

Sometimes, they can sound slightly out-of-tune, like macabre memories

So, it is a picturesque suite or symphonic poem, offering solo spots for pretty well every section of the orchestra, as instruments replace the soloists in the original opera: trombone, saxophone, harp, viola, violin (with foot stamping) and the rest. It is visually as well as aurally diverting. The whole experience is like a musical rollercoaster ride lasting 25 minutes, which chucks you off at the end exhilarated and exhausted. But it isn’t all sound and fury. There are times when the strings are almost inaudible, responding to Gruber’s super-pianissimo demands. There are also times when you want to run for cover from the super-fortissimo orchestra in full throttle.

For a curtain-raiser to his work, Gruber turned to his compatriot and collaborator in the Viennese avant-garde ensemble, “die Reihe” (“the series”) in the late Sixties, Friedrich Cerha. His Viennese Kaleidoscope harks back to popular tradition and the folk roots of his childhood. Again, this work is a derivation from two of his original song cycles, the Keintate (a pun on cantata), inspired by the dialect poet Ernst Kein.

What he gives us in 20 minutes are 11 brief sections capturing, often ironically, marches and dances (polka, galopp, quadrille, waltz). Sometimes, they can sound slightly out-of-tune, like macabre memories. He plays with the forms – for example, the polka is offered on pizzicato strings and then on xylophones. It all ends with a jolly pot-pourri stirring up the can-can.

Gruber had intended to leaven this Viennese celebration with a first half of English music, namely Goehr and Britten. However, the indisposition of tenor Ian Bostridge meant that he had to quickly find a replacement work and soloist. What we had was more of Vienna – Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, with soprano Ruby Hughes (pictured above right).

I last heard her as Michal in Saul at last year’s Buxton Festival and she impressed. This performance gave us the chance to hear her in her own right. She sang beautifully, with great expression and a warm tone in the five songs, but particularly in the moving I breathed a gentle fragrance and in the final I am lost to the world, touchingly fading away into “I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song”. Although Gruber seemed to have some problems of balance in the hall (no doubt sorted out in the live Radio 3 broadcast), her quality and sensitivity came across.

The opening work was Alexander Goehr’s Adagio (Self-portrait) and the composer was present to hear the performance and take a bow. Now 80, he relates that this composition was inspired by seeing the 80-year-old Lucien Freud’s self-portrait.

In Adagio, he uses the term self-portrait in the sense of exploring a personal take on a classical model, namely Mozart. I can only take his word for it. As it happens, there were some musical links with Gruber in the use of harp, timpani and percussion. So, it slotted in rather well into an altogether novel programme. I was put in mind of a quotation from Proverbs: “Awake, o north wind… blow upon my garden that the spices thereof may flow out.”  Gruber delivered a pretty spicy concoction.     

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