Saturday 22 May 2021

Fiendish, but fantastic: after a long relationship with the composer, percussionist Colin Currie has recorded both of HK Gruber's percussion concertos

Colin Currie
Colin Currie

The percussionist Colin Currie has a new disc out, his own label, Colin Currie Records. Having previously issued Steve Reich's Drumming, a duet disc with trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, Scene of the Crime, and Colin Currie & Steve Reich Live at Fondation Louis Vuitton on the label, the new disc has percussion concertos by the Austrian composer, conductor and chansonnier HK Gruber. Featuring two live recordings with the BBC Philharmonic and conductors Juanjo Mena and John Storgårds, the disc sees Colin performing Gruber's Rough Music from 1982-83 and into the open..., which Colin premiered at the BBC Proms in 2015. I recently met up with Colin, via Zoom, to chat about H.K. Gruber, Colin's connection to Steve Reich's music, what makes a good percussion concerto and more.

HK Gruber: Percussion Concertos - Colin Currie
One of the reasons that Colin wanted to issue the disc was that he feels the Gruber concertos have a unique place in percussion concertos yet are rather lesser known than other contemporary concertos. into the open..., of course, has only had a few performances since the premiere but for Colin, Rough Music has been a smash hit. He has performed it a lot and feels close to the piece, and in fact, recorded it in his own version. Colin had performed both works in recent times with the BBC Philharmonic (which has a long association with Gruber) and both concerts were memorable and it is the recordings from these that they have been able to use for the new disc.

into the open..., which Colin premiered, has an ambitious use of percussion and the piece needed an intense amount of editing, finessing the virtuosic solo part (Gruber evidently calls this the 'Colin Currie Edition'). But Colin feels that we now have a practical version of the piece which could be played by others though so far Colin is the only percussionist to have played the work. He describes it as 'fiendish, but fantastic' and it includes proverbial fistfuls of notes. It requires a huge percussion set-up including timpani and tomtoms, yet reveals many different sides to the solo part. Performance of the work also needs stamina, there are only a few seconds rest in the piece, and in these, the soloist still has things to do with the set-up.

When I ask about the style of Gruber's music, Colin comments that it is difficult to describe. He sees the music as very European, and Gruber (who trained in Vienna at what is now called the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien) comes through the Austro-German tradition from Berg and Richard Strauss. Yet the music of Kurt Weill is also close to Gruber's heart, so the result is expressionist, melodic and hard to pin down! Very much the maverick indeed, and there is an anarchy in Gruber's music that pushes boundaries, and Colin's article about Gruber in the disc's booklet notes is entitled, 'HK Gruber, The Artful Anarchist'.

Colin has performed both of Gruber's concertos with Gruber conducting and indeed their collaboration goes back to 2001 when Colin first worked with Gruber in Leipzig.

But in the booklet notes for the disc, Colin describes how he fell under Gruber's spell in July 1999 when he attended the world premiere of Gruber's trumpet concerto Aerial at the BBC Proms, written for their mutual friend, Håkan Hardenberger.

Colin Currie, HK Gruber, John Storgårds, BBC Philharmonic after premiere of Gruber's 'into the open ...' at BBC Proms 2015 (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Colin Currie, HK Gruber, John Storgårds, BBC Philharmonic after premiere of Gruber's into the open ... at BBC Proms 2015 (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Colin describes Gruber as joyful to play with and, though their music is vastly different, Colin compares Gruber to another composer/conductor Pierre Boulez in that both feel their music intrinsically and their conducting matches the music so that Boulez is clear, passionate and instructive. Colin has also played the music of other composers with Gruber such as Steven Mackey's Time Release. Yet Gruber is also interested in repertoire that sometimes you might not expect such as Jennifer Higdon's concerto.

Higdon's Percussion Concerto of 2005 was enormously popular after its premiere when Colin performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a tour of seven concerts including making his Carnegie Hall debut. Then for the next two years, Colin was playing the work on average once a month, something that he describes as 'epic', and his live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Marin Alsop won a Grammy [available on Amazon].

For Colin, a good percussion concerto is one where the composer is able to treat the instruments with as much dignity and respect as they would any other instrument, and the percussion stands out on its own terms with no awkwardness. He feels that Gruber in his concertos gives the solo full voice with a complete artistic vision.

Marin Alsop and Colin Currie
Marin Alsop and Colin Currie

With new concertos, the amount of editing needed in the solo part can vary so that in the case of Kalevi Aho's Concerto for Percussion & Orchestra, 'Sieidi' (which Colin premiered in 2010), the part needed no editing and the work really took off after its first performance. Other concertos push the soloist technically and Colin is often involved in the planning of the work, for instance for Simon Holt's concerto, Colin was involved in choosing the instruments. He rather enjoys this sort of input and the fact that each piece is different is fun.

When commissioning a new piece Colin tries not to be too prescriptive and to simply talk about the sort of forces to be used so that he keeps the brief open. But sometimes, he has a particular idea so that at the moment he is thinking about a new marimba concerto as these are quite rare. Usually, however, he simply invites the composers who have demonstrated different ways of solving the problems presented there are no works that he was regretted commissioning. With a new concerto, it should have a life after the premiere, and Colin feels that he has had a good strike rate. He has given around 40 concerto premieres and most have had a substantial after-life.

Colin has had an ongoing collaboration with Steve Reich for decades. He is drawn to the colour of Reich's music, its depth and profundity; for him, it is mind-altering and heart-expanding, as well as being extraordinarily diverse. His first disc on Colin Currie Records featured the Colin Currie Group performing Reich's 1971 work, Drumming, an epic work for nine percussionists, two vocalists and a piccolo player.

Colin formed the Colin Currie Group in 2006 for a performance at the BBC Proms celebrating Reich's 70th birthday, and the group specialises in the composer’s work. Colin feels that at the moment he is blest with fine percussionist colleagues in the UK so that the Colin Currie Group is spearheaded by world-beating players.

Steve Reich: Clapping Music - Colin Currie and Steve Reich (Photo Ben Larpent)
Steve Reich: Clapping Music - Colin Currie and Steve Reich (Photo Ben Larpent)

Whilst Colin founded his label to draw together a catalogue that showcases the variety and diversity of percussion music now, the music of Steve Reich will be something of a focus with the idea that every other album will be of Reich's music. So that Colin followed up the Drumming disc with The Scene of the Crime, a disc of duets with Håkan Hardenberger featuring four works written for the duo by Brett Dean, Joe Duddell, Tobias Broström and Daniel Börtz, alongside Heptade by André Jolivet (1904-1974), which was written in 1971 for the French trumpeter Maurice André. In turn, this disc was followed by Colin Currie & Steve Reich Live at Fondation Louis Vuitton which featured Colin along with the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals, with the composer joining Colin for Clapping Music. Whereas the new disc features the more maverick works of HK Gruber, a composer who it is hard to pin down. Having the Colin Currie Records label gives Colin more flexibility and enables him to feature more challenging works and to broaden the base of recorded percussion music.

Colin has played percussion from quite a young age. He cannot quite rightly say why he was drawn to playing percussion, but his earliest memory is of the sound of the snare drum, which he found gripping and his interest grew.

He was the first percussionist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician Competition (in 1994), so it felt as if a lot was riding on it for the idea of a percussion concerto element to the competition, and indeed the BBC also commissioned a new percussion work. All kinds of people were watching and waiting; it was thrilling to be part of and he was keen to get the percussion category off to a good start. In the end, it went well and there was a percussion category in the following years. The first four year's percussion category finalists remained close (Colin describes the percussion world as collegial and positive) and the other three would join Colin in the Colin Currie Group!

Self-portrait by HK Gruber for Colin, the first time they worked together (Credit: HK Gruber, from the CD booklet)
Self-portrait by HK Gruber for Colin, the first time they worked together
(Credit: HK Gruber, from the CD booklet)
He came to London to study, to the Royal Academy of Music to learn the orchestral skill set. This was the 1990s, and the solo repertoire was very limited, there were good things but not enough for a diverse solo career. So he played in a lot of orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, and very much enjoyed it and it was only when he was in his mid-20s when he made the break as a solo player. And strangely enough, he always had more confidence when out at the front of the stage.

Coming up in June, Colin will be premiering Bruno Mantovani's new concerto, Allegro barbaro, with the Tonkünstler Orchestra, conductor Yutaka Sado (on 6 June 2021 at the Musikverein, Vienna and 7 June 2021 at the Festspielhaus, St.Pölten) following the postponement of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France’s premiere last season. Colin describes the work as powerful and explosive, with the percussion entirely unpitched. It is also quick, rattling along at high speed with much excitement and effusive orchestration, full of colour, interesting chords and wonderful orchestral textures. An 'edge-of-the-seat' piece, it is also difficult [Colin introduces the work in an article on his website].

With Colin Currie Records, Colin is hoping to make the next disc a Steve Reich one and he has his sights set on Reich's Music for 18 Musicians though that requires the funding to be in place. In the Autumn, the Colin Currie Group will be giving a Steve Reich premiere, Travellers Prayer which is both exciting and a great honour. The performance will be in the context of an all-Reich programme with a tour which will include Amsterdam, London, Paris, Hamburg and Tokyo. Further ahead, Colin will be premiering a new Luke Bedford piece with the Philharmonia.

You can see Colin performing HK Gruber's into the open ... with the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds on the Intermusica website.

Colin Currie on disc:

  • HK Gruber: Percussion Concertos - Colin Currie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena & John Storgårds - Colin Currie Records (2021)
  • Kalevi Aho: Sieidi, Symphony No. 5 - Colin Currie, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Dima Slobodeniouk - BIS Records (2020)
  • Colin Currie & Steve Reich Live at Fondation Louis Vuitton - Steve Reich, Colin Currie, Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals - Colin Currie Records (2019)
  • The Scene of the Crime: Jolivet, Duddell, Broström, Börtz, Dean - Håkan Hardenberger, Colin Currie - Colin Currie Records (2018)
  • Steve Reich: Drumming - Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals - Colin Currie Records (2018)
  • Simon Holt: a table of noises - Colin Currie, percussion, Chloë Hanslip, violin, The Hallé Orchestra, Nicholas Collon - NMC Recordings (2017)
  • Elliott Carter: Two Controversies and a Conversation - Colin Currie, percussion, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen - Ondine (2017)
  • James MacMillan: A Deep but Dazzling Darkness, Í, Veni, Veni Emmanuel - Colin Currie, percussion, Gordan Nikolic, violin, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, James MacMillan - Challenge Classics (2012)
  • Rautavaara: Cello Concerto No.2: 'Towards the Horizon', Modificata, Percussion Concerto: 'Incantations' - Colin Currie, percussion, Truls Mørk, cello, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds - Ondine (2012)
  • James Macmillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Thomas Ades: Chamber Symphony, Jennifer Higdon: Percussion Concerto - Colin Currie, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop - LPO (2008)

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Unashamedly delicious: Nostalgic Russia, music for violin and piano from Hideko Udagawa and Petr Limonov - record review
  • A disc of harpsichord pieces by an unknown late-18th century English composer might not appeal, but you've never heard anything like John Worgan's harpsichord music - record review
  • Making goodness interesting: a new recording of Handel's Rodelinda from the English Concert with Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Joshua Ellicott  - record review
  • Legacy: A Tribute to Dennis Brain from horn player Ben Goldscheider - record review
  • Side-stepping with deft elegance the issue of what instrument the music was written for, Andrew Wilder reinvents Bach's Lute Suites on classical guitar - record review
  • Bärenreiter's Schubert edition, BBC Singers & Bathrobe recitals: baritone Jamie W Hall's remarkable journey to making his first solo disc, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin - interview
  • Streamed, live-audiences or both? As ensembles consider innovative ways of returning to performance with live audiences, Middlesex University has been doing some research - feature
  • The Harmonious Echo: there are plenty of delights in this second dip into Sullivan's neglected song repertoire - record review
  • Together, apart: The House of Bedlam's Enclosure on NMC explores how musicians make music when not physically able to be together - record review
  • A vivid and restless talent: music by Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan in the first disc issued after her death last year - record review
  • "Heard a practice mighty good of Grebus" - Samuel Pepys and the tantalising Louis Grabu - feature
  • Messe da Pacem: conductor Rupert Gough and the choir of Royal Holloway rediscover a mass by Pierre Villette, unperformed since the 1970s - interview
  • Celebrating Latvia's centenary with music: the State Choir "Latvija" records 16 new works from a project creating a grand total of 77 new pieces by Latvian composers - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month