A concert hall is the wrong venue for Franui. The “musicbanda” from East Tyrol belongs on a bandstand in a park or on a breezy pier. Their audience should be eating ice-cream and drinking beer instead of sitting quietly in the dark. Franui’s bittersweet folk arrangements of German art songs, with elements of jazz and klezmer, call up village fêtes, weddings and, especially, funerals. With acclaimed bass-baritone Florian Boesch as their frontman, it wasn’t clear whether Franui wanted to knock art songs off their pedestal, as bandleader Andreas Schett claims, or elevate folk music to high culture. The affectionate irreverence of their reworkings suggested the former, but the video backdrop by artist Jonas Dahlberg intimated the latter. The 70-minute programme was undeniably entertaining, but the songs varied in impact.

Franui © Lukas Beck
Franui
© Lukas Beck

Franui, founded in 1993, is the name of an Alpine pasture near Innervillgraten, the small village cradled in a picturesque valley where most of the ensemble members grew up. They have day jobs in orchestras, but also as teachers and social workers. Schett, who cues entrances by nodding vigorously while playing the trumpet, and Markus Kraler, on double bass, write the arrangements. They punch out robust rhythms anchored by Andreas Fuetsch’s steady tuba, use accelerandi for humorous and dramatic effect and garnish vocal lines with clarinet and saxophone swirls. For barely-there accompaniment, they go for delicate strumming and plucking on the hammered dulcimer and harp. Their trademark genre is the funeral march, which makes Gustav Mahler, with his references to processions and military bands, a rich vein to mine. The title of this programme, Alles Wieder Gut (All Was Well Again), comes from a song in Mahler’s song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), in which the broken heart of a lover is eased by a shower of linden blossoms. And it was the Mahler selections, interspersed with Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, that left the strongest impression. Longing and loss linked the songs thematically. Standalone songs and ones plucked from cycles such as Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) followed each other without pause for applause. The tragic alternated with the jocular and the pensive with the desperate. On video Dahlberg's candlewax model of a white bedroom melted extremely slowly, visualising the fleeting nature of life, or love, without ever becoming an integral part of the performance.

Florian Boesch and Franui © Lukas Beck
Florian Boesch and Franui
© Lukas Beck

Despite their folky, rosy-cheeked sound, Franui’s playing was polished and precisely timed. When the brass was hooty, it was deliberate, as were the raucous song finales. The acoustic instruments were amplified, so Boesch also used a microphone. This allowed him to croon, sing in a raw pop voice, and pare down his sound for sorrowful songs such as Schumann’s Es fiel ein Reif (There came a frost), a tale of two young people who perish after they elope. Sung with minimal accompaniment, this first hushed song contrasted effectively with its predecessors, especially a mocking, hyperactive rendition of the rough boy picking the reluctant rose in Schubert’s Heidenröslein. Similar arrangements and delivery used in later songs, however, felt repetitive. Schett and Kraler’s best arrangements were the ones using the whole ensemble and giving musicians solo turns. Schubert’s Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen (Litany for the Feast of All Souls) was particularly beautiful and had a captivating nostalgic postlude.  

Florian Boesch and Franui © Lukas Beck
Florian Boesch and Franui
© Lukas Beck

The microphones did not always help Boesch. At one point he could not be heard, and when singing forte he was boosted unnecessarily. At full blast the whole ensemble was too loud for the crisp acoustics of the Muziekgebouw. Still, it was fascinating to hear Boesch trying new approaches to familiar songs. He was obviously having loads of fun with the players, who also supplied backing vocals. Franui’s oompah humour and Boesch’s sardonic facial expressions sweetened the platefuls of misfortune they were serving up – disappointment, rejection, suicidal thoughts and death. They could have named their show “Two Weddings and Several Funerals”, but even the weddings were miserable occasions. In both Mahler’s Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding day) and Schumann’s Der Hans und die Grete tanzen herum (Hans and Grete dance around), the bride has dumped her lover to marry someone else. Boesch, formidable at being angry-sad, used his extensive range of colours in these two songs. He was most affecting, however, in Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world). Sung softly and intimately, with marvellous legato, this anthem to the artist’s inner life should have ended the evening. After the big round of applause it received, Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” felt like an encore. Boesch sang it as as a forceful ballad. It was not his most convincing number, but it was an apt choice for a band that turns funeral music into fun.