MUSIC / Where the bland lead the bland

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The Independent Culture
VIENNA IS about the most unlikely constant in the modern history of music. Why this stifling, semi-feudal little city with its ancien regime aristocracy of civil servants should have been such a draw for musicians in the first place is easy to understand: the sheer concentration of wealth - those huddled ranks of urban palaces lining the streets around the Hofburg - would have turned the head of any 18th-century artist in pursuit of patronage. But it's less easy to understand why the musicians stayed when the wealth declined into nostalgia: why there was a Second Viennese School to follow what became known as the First, and why there now appears to be a Third Viennese School - led by Kurt Schwertsik and H K Gruber - operating in reaction against the Second.

Somehow the show goes on; and its survival is celebrated in a thematic festival at the South Bank called Alternative Vienna, which began last Thursday. The idea of Franz Welser-Most, the South Bank's music director and himself Viennese, it looks at Gruber and Schwertsik and attempts to place them in the great tradition. Thursday's concert ran Schwertsik's Violin Concerto against Mahler's 9th Symphony; and we were clearly meant to nod wisely at the juxtaposition and say, 'Ah yes, I see'.

But I'm afraid I didn't see - because I'm never sure what, in reality, this great tradition amounts to, beyond a kitchen where successive shifts of cooks can't stand the heat and leave: in other words, a sequence of absorbed and then rejected precedents. It certainly looks that way in the case of Gruber and Schwertsik, whose claim to fame is that they launched the Viennese avant-avant-garde in the Sixties: at a time when Europe was in thrall to modernism and venerating Vienna as the cradle of it all, the birthplace of serial austerity. As fledgling composers, G & S were modernists too - Gruber was a student of Stockhausen - but by the mid-Sixties they had rebelled back into tonality: into triadic harmonies and simple vernacular forms that derived from cabaret and the streets.

Now, this was not so radical as it might seem, because, having cradled modernism, Vienna lost no time in fostering the baby out. The city gave Schoenberg to the world with a sigh of relief and settled back to Strauss. In fact, according to a contemporary essay by the musicologist Theodor Adorno modernism was alive everywhere in Fifties and Sixties Europe except Vienna.

So what exactly did Gruber and Schwertsik do that demands our attention? Well, they revitalised the idea, periodically discredited, of music as entertainment. They attacked the sobriety of modernism with fun - at varying levels from knockabout farce to quite sophisticated irony. And the street-music element in their work encouraged the idea that they had reconnected Viennese music with the voice of Mahler: the mainstream from which Schoenbergian serialism was a tributary divergence. But if Thursday's concert is anything to go by, the voice of Mahler is sounding frail in the afterlife; because Schwertsik's Violin Concerto is a pretty but thin piece. No match for a Mahler symphony at all. Effectively a decorative suite with violin obligato, it makes a few points of rhythmic interest and melodic charm. But it clearly meant nothing to the London Philharmonic, who played it with complete indifference, or to the young Russian violinist Sergei Stadler, who turned in a blandly uncommitted solo contribution.

This was an inauspicious start to the festival and it got worse with the Mahler 9: the most overtly (and futuristically) psychotic statement in the whole Mahler catalogue and a killer score in the best of circumstances. Welser- Most raised some temperature here, but only by exaggerating the serrated asperity of Mahler's textures beyond any degree of grotesqueness that the composer could have envisaged. It was, to be blunt, a horrible performance that lost its way in the workings of the long first movement and never made it back on course. The most I can say is that it was risky and uncompromising; but it was also misjudged and something I wouldn't want to hear again. Alternative Vienna continues until May. It can only improve.

That wealth determines the demography of the arts explains why the better American orchestras are usually found in industrial cities, basking in civic pride and business sponsorship. The New York Philharmonic, though, has never had it quite so easy, and had to fight for profile (and funds) against fierce cultural competition. The regime of its last music director, Zubin Mehta, was by all accounts particularly difficult and artistically patchy. But in 1991 Mehta bowed out to Kurt Masur, who was not the first choice of the orchestra (they wanted Abbado) but went down well on arrival.

This week Masur brought the Philharmonic to the Festival Hall, and there was no doubt that he had made a difference. The sound had changed, the old-style swank (cultivated by swanky personalities like Leonard Bernstein) was muted, and the former directness of the brass and woodwind playing comparatively veiled. The programmes included Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, to demonstrate that American orchestras haven't given up on this repertory as ours have, and I was underwhelmed. But there was no denying the musicianship involved; and when they got to Brahms's Symphony No 2 - Masur's home ground - it came with an urbane and measured eloquence.

The pianist Paul Roberts stuck to his own home ground at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday and was even more impressive. Roberts is a master of French 20th- century keyboard style. You feel in his playing an uncommon depth of study and absorption that supports (and legitimises) an otherwise very free imaginative licence. I wouldn't, for example, have chosen such lugubrious tempi or gelling textures for Debussy's Estampes; but he did, and having made his choice he endorsed it with such nurturing, unclinical tenderness that I was totally won over. As I was by the extreme sensitivity of his Debussy Preludes (Book 1) and the brilliance of his Falla Fantasia Betica.

What I don't share is his devotion to Maurice Ohana, the Paris- based contemporary of Messiaen who died last year and to whom this recital was dedicated. Ohana's pluralistic idiom, obliquely re-interpreting colonial Afro-jazz or ancient monody into abstracted 'pure' forms, doesn't tempt my ear beyond curiosity. But Roberts is a powerful advocate. If anyone can make a sceptic think again, this is the man.

(Photograph omitted)

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