MUSIC / City of fickle favours and confection: Nicholas Williams on HK Gruber and Kurt Schwertsik at the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
For all those who thought that alternative Vienna meant Sachertorte rather than the Second Viennese School, or the other way round, the celebration of Austrian music at the South Bank has come as a shock.

Subtitled 'presenting the music of H K Gruber and Kurt Schwertsik', this alternative Vienna is different again; the post-war New Music has grown from an ironic treatment of the popular rather than modernist traditions of an essentially conservative city where Gruber may have become a household name, but only the enthusiast will be acquainted with many of the works revealed here. For British audiences, the alternative is one of novelty. For middle-Europeans it's a question of Vienna-as-haven - the adopted home that, from Mozart's time, has attracted talent in magnificent profusion.

Friedrich Cerha, born in 1926, is an exception, being a native of the city. Last Saturday at the QEH he conducted the young German soloists' orchestra, the Ensemble Modern, in the one concert of the sequence to avoid the Gruber-Schwertsik axis, examining instead the catalogue of Vienna-based composers who have escaped, or ignored, the influence of local Schmalz. It was good to see him directing these implacably disciplined players. His precise, gentlemanly signals made for an interesting comparison with the manners of our own ensemble of soloists, the London Sinfonietta.

Cerha's own tribute to the artistry of the cellist Heinrich Schiff, his Phantasiestuck in C's Manier, made a quiet, self-effacing centre for the event, preceeded by Leopold Spinner's Schoenbergian Passachelia. Spinner's 18 terse, gritty variations for wind, strings and piano were as quirky in their gestures and pacing as Hanns Eisler's Chamber Symphony, written four years later.

Each of Eisler's five movements - stentorian introduction, brisk chorale-variation, lop-sided scherzo - displayed a characteristic facet of his style, set with cinematic abruptness of phrasing in a cool musical frieze of wind-band colours. Spinner, born in Lemberg, worked in a Midlands' locomotive factory during the war; he died in obscurity. Eisler, born in Leipzig, followed a long pilgrimage via America to East Germany. Vienna can attract like a magnet, but can also reverse the polarities. More recently, it has drawn to its bosom Gyorgy Ligeti, who seems likely to survive the city's fickle favours. His Piano Concerto, played by the Ensemble Modern's unflappable pianist Ueli Wiget and percussionists doubling whistles, kazoo and ocarina, is as dotty as anything by Gruber, with the added zest of Hungarian volatility. But its playful surface of Magyar rhythms conceals the typical Ligeti concern with music as a mediation between extremes of pitch, density and timbre. Personality is the final arbiter for quality of invention, a lesson evident in zeit, an den randern der dinge, stille. . . by Christian Schedlmayer - consciously full of metaphysics, but Viennese or no, musically failing to register.

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