MUSIC: Nursery fantasies: Stephen Johnson on H K Gruber and Mahler at the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE is one overwhelmingly positive thing to come out of the South Bank's Alternative Vienna series so far, it is the realisation that H K 'Nali' Gruber, composer, 'chansonnier', bass-player and descendant of the Gruber who gave us Silent Night, is a very interesting figure. Indeed, in Saturday's London Sinfonietta programme the Cello Concerto revealed many more layers of meaning - and of pure musical beauty - than it had in its Proms performance last year. And in Tuesday's London Philharmonic concert it was the turn of Frankenstein]]: 'pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra' and Gruber's best-known work - or rather best-known title, since broadcasts and performances haven't exactly been frequent over here.

The ingredients of Frankenstein]] read like a recipe for disaster. Nasty little surreal rhymes about the stuff of nursery fantasies - vampires, monsters, Superman, Batman, 007 - expressed with the grim relish of Struwwelpeter, and set to a mixture of Weill, sleazy night-club-ese and distorted Hollywood, with perhaps a dash of Berg for good measure, engineered and performed by an Austrian - and, as we are so often told, Germanic peoples possess a singularly unsubtle sense of humour.

So much for racial stereotypes. Gruber's humour is as recognisably Germanic as his barked and rolled consonants, but it is sharp, vividly grotesque and thought-provoking. The parody adventures of John Wayne are set to raunchy, crazed parody Western sounds. 'Rat Song and Crusoe Song', despite modern incursions such as a sinister toy saxophone and swanee whistle, stems from pungent Brecht-Weill, while in 'Dedication' there's more than a hint of serious purpose: 'Don't compose delightful prose. / Any sprite could write in white. / It should reach through blood and bone / to your heart's own little home.' And in some bizarre, distorted way it does. The schmaltz repels and touches at the same time; the childish cruelty and terror disturb because none of us has completely put away childish things.

As singer, actor, toy-instrument- player and all-round personality, Gruber was magnificent. The London Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Most seemed rather more tight-lipped about it all, though Gruber's exuberant musical fantasy triumphed all the same. And something similar could be said for parts of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, the second work in Tuesday's programme. Only parts, though - there were some beautiful and striking sounds from the LPO players, but rather less sense of evolving line in the passages where the singers were silent, and not a great deal of inner intensity - that echt-Mahlerian feeling that the heart is so full it might burst.

Singing was variable too. The tenor Thomas Sunnegardh struggled through powerful orchestral tuttis in 'Drinking Song of the Earth's Misery', but touched a nice note of parody in 'Youth'. The mezzo Doris Soffel seemed unsteady and unfocused in her first song, 'The Lonely One in Autumn', but in the final 'Farewell' she rose in stature, especially in quiet, inward passages - the timeless, cadenza-like dialogues with solo woodwinds, or the lines that float softly above rippling harp or low flute figures. It was in the sweeping, aspiring passages that the involvement never quite seemed enough and, of course, without that, the release of the final pages was hardly a release at all.