In an iconic scene from Sam Raimi’s cult horror film Evil Dead II, the main character’s right hand, possessed by a malevolent presence, turns against him and tries to sabotage him – a scenario that is likely to frighten any musician. Being in good control of one’s body is the basis, or perhaps the goal, of any performance. In this regard, there is much to be learned from Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger, who was invited to play a most challenging programme at Berlin’s Staatsoper alongside Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno and the Staatskapelle. The evening was thus segmented in two parts – the first, percussion-centred one comprising Peter Eötvös’ Speaking Drums and Tan Dun’s The Tears of Nature; the second focusing on 20th-century Russian repertoire, namely Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fairytale Poem and Shostakovich’s First Symphony.

Martin Grubinger and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Peter Adamik

Featuring original poems and phonetic transcriptions from Sanskrit by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, Speaking Drums uses said texts as musical props, as strings of pure sound with no actual meaning attached. As each word is spoken by the solo percussionist, the sets of drums around him seem to pick up on the vocal cues, responding by imitation. Indeed, the soloist teaches the percussion how to speak – but soon enough they develop their own independent, complex idiom. It is this strict relation between text, body and instruments that makes Eötvös’ piece so fascinating yet so demanding, a physical and interpretative tour de force. Grubinger excelled not only in stamina, but also in technical skills and charisma. While whispering, mumbling, chanting and shouting on stage, he managed to maintain impeccable rhythmic precision and present an ever-changing palette of sounds. Gimeno’s orchestra carefully followed, providing a harmonically evocative accompaniment to Grubinger’s scored and improvised cadenzas.

If Eötvös made his drums speak, it can be argued that in The Tears of Nature Tan Dun got his to sing. Composed with Grubinger himself in mind, the three-movement percussion concerto traces different natural disasters – earthquakes, floods, hurricanes – with the intention to warn but also, more generally, to help us rethink our position in relation to them. Tan’s score often inspires a sense of startling awe, its thematic materials being passed around in the orchestra with growing energy. Yet the piece is also not devoid of lyricism, which Gimeno grasped and emphasised with attentive and limpid phrasing. The synergy between conductor, soloist and orchestra was tangible, giving the impression of a whole organism of which Grubinger was perhaps the main, but not only, beating heart. A most fascinating moment among the others was the pianissimo opening of the second movement, striking for its ethereal timbral beauty.

Gustavo Gimeno conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Peter Adamik

Opening the second half of the concert was Gubaidulina’s Fairytale Poem. Actually a suite-like reworking of a more extended piece of music that the composer wrote for a radio program in 1971, the score preserves a captivating thematic and instrumental allure. Gimeno proceeded with a secure, pensive pace, never rushing the orchestra and instead allowing the audience to appreciate the work’s texture.

Shostakovich’s First Symphony, written as a graduation exercise at the (then) Petrograd Conservatory, is – to quote Leonard Bernstein – a rather quirky piece, but one that finds in such quirkiness its enduring appeal. However, its changes in tone and often surprising turns of events don’t subvert, but rather enrich, the large-scale structure envisioned by the composer. By then acquainted with Gimeno’s characteristic approach, the audience was presented with a controlled, emotionally lucid rendition which ventured only occasionally into more imposing outbursts. While perhaps a little short on character, Gimeno’s interpretation honoured the chamber-like quality of the score and met with warm success.