Music: Improving the tone of Vienna: Nick Kimberley meets Franz Welser-Most, whose Alternative Vienna programme at the South Bank promises to bring the city's popular image up to date with a tonal bang

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EVERY CITY has its shadow. There is the real city, of streets and buses and people. And then there is its Doppelganger, a much larger city barely hinted at in the street-maps: a city of the collective and individual imagination. This shadow-city survives long after the 'real' city has crumbled.

Vienna is no exception. No doubt there is a 'real' Vienna: there it is on the map, a speck at the very heart of Europe. And there is the other Vienna, of waltzes and fancy cakes, of cafes where Leon Trotsky plotted revolution, of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession, of the first and second Viennese schools in music. As the map of Europe slowly shifts and splinters around it, this double-Vienna assumes ever greater importance.

Vienna has for so long been a pivot of our musical culture that we take it for granted. The term 'Viennese school' may be no more than a geographical convenience, but it brings together composers who form the backbone of our concert-going: the 'first' Viennese school of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, leading via a bridge of Mahler and Bruckner to the 'second' Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. You could run a concert-hall on these composers alone, and sometimes it can seem as if that is just what is happening.

To provide some sort of antidote to this Viennoiserie, Franz Welser-Most, music director of the London Philharmonic, has collaborated with the South Bank Centre to offer Alternative Vienna, a series of concerts which will provide more detail for our map of that Vienna of the imagination. For Welser-Most, the key to understanding Vienna lies in its very position at the heart of Mittel-Europa. He says: 'If you read the phone book in Vienna, you would think you were in Budapest or Prague, not in a German-speaking city. Vienna was in the last century what New York is in this: a city in which all different cultures mingle. On the one hand that creates something great; on the other it means conflict. Out of that grows neurosis - it's not by chance that Freud made his discoveries in Vienna.'

Like London, Vienna has been forced to adjust to life without its 19th-century empire. Welser-Most thinks the city has not coped well with the loss. 'The necromania of the Viennese is extraordinary: in musical life, they think Vienna is the centre of the world. Here in London, when you play a Beethoven symphony, you play it conscious of the fact that it was written 200 years ago, but that you have to play it alive, today. In Vienna they think Beethoven is a modern composer.'

Given his obvious distaste for the Austrian mentality, it is perhaps no surprise that Welser-Most, born in Austria (Linz) in 1960, is now a citizen of Liechtenstein. In fact, his very name marks a deep attachment to his native land; the family name is Most, but he added the 'Welser' to mark his family's centuries-long connections with the town of Wels. More Austrian necromania? Perhaps, but Welser-Most left Austria in 1986, and now clearly has a somewhat combative relationship with his former homeland. Perhaps he needs an Alternative Vienna as much as we do.

Alternative Vienna offers a showcase for composers who have changed the face of Viennese music over the past two decades, in particular Kurt Schwertsik (born in 1935) and H K Gruber (born in 1943). In the 1960s, Schwertsik was a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, but he became disaffected with much of what was happening in avant-garde music. He had earlier met H K Gruber when both were playing in the Lower Austrian Tonkunstler Orchestra (Schwertsik played the horn, Gruber the double bass), and the two had worked together in the new music ensemble die reihe. In 1968 - a pivotal year in so many ways - they joined with fellow composer Otto Zykan to form another modern music ensemble, MOB art & tone ART, whose near-nonsense name actually amounts to a manifesto on behalf of tonal music that can speak, if not to the mob then at least to an audience larger than a dedicated avant-gardist coterie.

Now that Tavener and Part, Reich and Glass have become part of the musical mainstream, such a return to tonality no longer seems radical. What Schwertsik and Gruber write could by no means be dismissed as easy listening; both composers are rigorously imaginative, whether they are working in raucous Kabarett mode or in a strange, tonal post-serialist idiom. For Welser-Most, they belong in the Viennese tradition which links Beethoven and Webern. 'Webern is a real example of reducing everything to the real substance, the core of music. There is a rather depressed, melancholic mentality in him, which is there too in Gruber and Schwertsik. They have a bigger touch of irony, absolutely a gallows humour: that's why we're playing them with Mahler - it's not just to sell the concerts. I don't know if Gruber and Schwertsik want to hear this, maybe they will kill me, but for me they are grandsons of Mahler.'

Grandson of Mahler or not, Gruber agrees with Welser-Most on one thing: 'Irony is the key for me.' An equally firm link with Mahler is his refusal to reject the popular; his most famous work, the 'pandaemonium' Frankenstein]] is a breathtaking amalgam of concerto, cantata and Kabarett that uses a child's toybox full of miniature instruments alongside the conventional symphony orchestra and Gruber's own unique vocal rant and rasp. For Alternative Vienna, Frankenstein]] is performed alongside Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, which promises to be an illuminating juxtaposition.

For Gruber, the 'alternative' in the series' title suggests looking less for a different Vienna than for a different way of making and listening to music: ' 'Alternative' indicates an anti-school, an escape from the classroom mentality. With modern music, you often feel in the concert-hall like a pupil in the classroom. There is music composed for professors, and music composed for an audience. We don't want to produce a school, or to tell pupils, 'this is the right way' - there are thousands of right ways in music. The ear can make its own decisions.'

This does not imply an escape from responsibility, but an insistence on it. 'In the 1960s, when I began to play with die reihe, Schwertsik and I thought there was a problem: music must be described in a programme note before it is played. We thought, 'why is it no longer possible to let the music itself communicate?' I'm more and more against programme notes - especially if they are written by the composer. They produce the wrong expectations and probably lead far away from the music. We thought it was probably possible to communicate if you use a common vocabulary: tonality. It's a very old machine, and it still works.'

Here, then, is the alternative that Alternative Vienna proposes: a modern music that communicates without turning its back on complexity. Leonard Bernstein allegedly labelled Gruber, Schwertsik and their companions 'the third Viennese school'. This school may be as important as its predecessors, precisely in rendering the notion of 'school' redundant. If these composers succeed in moving beyond the taxonomy - mystic minimalism, new complexity and so on - which so disfigures our appreciation of contemporary music, then our imaginary map of Vienna will acquire another significant detail.

'Alternative April' begins on the South Bank (071-928 8800) on 15 April.

(Photograph omitted)