Who is Heinz Karl Gruber — aka HK Gruber? Well, Wikipedia says he is a representative of a “Third Viennese School,” whatever that is (there is one for psychotherapy!). But this genial, mischievous Austrian really belongs to no school, or all schools at once. If there is a word that describes a good deal of his music, it’s “playful.” Music seems to be a lot of fun for him — his most famous/notorious piece, Frankenstein!!, being Exhibit A — fun even when there is serious intent, like when he tries to rip the gemütlichkeit mask off Johann Strauss Jr’s saucy Perpetuum Mobile to reveal the dark underside of post-Hapsburg Austria in his Charivari.
Certainly the element of fun is ever-present in Rough Music (1982–1983), the first of two Gruber percussion concertos on a new CD by Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, pressed on his own eponymous record label. Long, merry solos on the vibraphone or marimba dominate the first movement, titled “Toberac” — all is genial. Things get a little schizophrenic in the second movement, “Shivaree,” which is delightful percussive madness as Currie hits and bashes several instruments that can be hit and bashed, alternating with more serene, contemplative episodes. Currie equates the manic central episode to a car chase, and that sounds about right.
The final movement — a different “Charivari,” this time for composer Henri Sauguet — begins wistfully. The pace quickens, various layers à la Ives eventually pile into the picture, and there is chaos near the close that quickly fades away. Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic.
Something else altogether permeates the second percussion concerto, into the open … , a 27-minute, one-movement piece that was written for Currie in 2015 in part as a memorial for the British musicologist David Drew, who worked for Gruber’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. Beginning with the dull thuds of small gongs, it seems to become a slow, halting procession. Things do get more agitated, but the generally somber mood of the opening is never far from sight; the fun of Rough Music is nowhere to be found. In live performance, Currie reportedly would dash from one percussion setup to another across the front of the stage, a bit of live theater that the home audio listener with the aid of good stereo separation will have to rely upon imagination to replicate. John Storgärds officiates in front of the BBC Philharmonic this time.
The tapes of the performances are not new — Rough Music dates from 2013, and into the open … from the world-premiere performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2015 — and originate from broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. There is one other recording of Rough Music led by Krystjan Järvi with percussionist Martin Grubinger (BIS) — an even more irreverently feverish performance coupled with a breezy rendition of Charivari — but none that combine the two percussion concertos on one disc.