Colin Currie

H K Gruber Percussion Concertos

Colin Currie Records

In many ways the most remarkable thing about the first work on this disc is that Scottish percussion virtuoso Colin Currie had nothing to do with it coming into being. Either as the commissioner or the populariser (as in his Naxos recording of James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel), Currie has been a great expander of the repertoire of major works for his instrument. Scotland can take some pride in the contribution Evelyn Glennie and he have made to the percussion soloist’s place on the concert platform.

That does not extend to Rough Music, however, the three-movement composition that maverick Austrian H K Gruber created for a colleague in the early 1980s when he was a bass player in the same Viennese orchestra. The boom in percussion concertos that Glennie and Currie encouraged was still in the future and forty years ago orchestral works for percussion soloists were few.

Having a sparse selection of templates suits Gruber, however, whose work sounds like no-one else. With a popular trumpet concerto for Hakan Hardenberger, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax and a cello one for Yo-Yo Ma demonstrate, the form fits his style, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra works well for his method. Often this is brazenly oppositional: if one side of the equation is melodic and tonal, the other will be brash and angular.

Rough Music is anything but what its title suggests; this is sophisticated stuff and often a very beguiling listen. Much frantic business from the soloist at the start gives way to calm about four minutes into the first movement, when the strings provide a melodious underscore, the brass becomes percussive, and the percussion soloist rather lyrical.

In the central movement the soloist alternates between hi-velocity work on a drum kit and a suite of arias for vibraphone, and the finale quotes liberally from Erik Satie and his disciple Henri Sauguet in a sequence that seems to be a tribute to French chanson and dance music, with a suitably dramatic conclusion.

The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2014, has slightly less presence in the mix for that work than is immediately audible in the BBC Proms recording under John Storgards at the Royal Albert Hall a year later. This was the premier of the work Gruber composed for Currie, into the open . . ., a multi-layered half-hour which exploits the soloist’s athleticism on an enormous array of percussion, Japanese gongs prominent alongside tuned orchestral instruments.

While still very much about the musical possibilities of the forces at his disposal, there was another side to the composition of this work for Gruber, in that it remembers his friend, musicologist and great Kurt Weill scholar David Drew. Small fragments of Weill’s Alabama Song pepper the score and there is an aching sense of anguish and loss in the work, and, more challengingly perhaps, of unfinished business.

Keith Bruce