Martin Grubinger may be regarded as one of the world’s most exciting percussion virtuosi, but for my money his greatest strengths are pianistic: the rich density of timbre he gets from his instruments (which are mainly the marimba and xylophone), the gift for turning an eloquent phrase, and the seamless legato that comes from sensitive touch and a finely-tuned ear for decay. His wife Ferzan and her twin sister Ferhan Önder share these qualities in their piano playing, turning graceful phrases while applying the minimum of weight. As an ensemble their refined homogeneity was particularly successful in the softer moments of this concert: the percussion themes in the slow movement of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, ranging in timbre from shimmering to more pointedly defined, came in and out of focus against a backdrop of atmospheric stillness. Phrasing remained true to Bartók’s nocturnal imagery while making cumulative sense of the movement’s concise statements.

Martin Grubinger, © Lukas Beck
Martin Grubinger,
© Lukas Beck

The Önders and two Grubingers (Martin was joined by his father, Martin senior) also imparted clarity and subtlety to Fazıl Say’s Variations, written for the same forces. Say’s music sounds like it could have been written over a hundred years ago, though despite a folkloric influence like that of Bartók or Ligeti it doesn’t borrow too distinct a voice or indeed sound at all self-conscious about its simple musical language. It is what it is, and not one of those works where one instinctively reaches for descriptions like ‘unashamedly’ tonal. At times, particularly when Say uses whole-tone and pentatonic scales, the texture, sounds and mood are unmistakably Debussian, but the referential touchstone of each short variation is the Turkish lullabies around which more abstract musical ideas are structured. This was well-written music which cohered well, despite the loose form of each variation. Say sometimes has one pianist state a theme and the other repeat it as an echo; this was managed capably by the two Önder sisters with sure touch, delicate adjustment of dynamics, and good projection. Required to handle an array of unusual percussion effects, the Grubingers also did well: there was some hushed cymbal-brushing that looked deceptively easy, but I imagine an even texture was hard to maintain at the measured pace Say prescribes.

The Rite of Spring was played in an arrangement adapted, by Martin Grubinger senior, from Stravinsky’s own two-piano arrangement. I don’t think it worked well, and after hearing it I am sceptical that the Rite could ever be made to work for these forces: the pesante surging and building up of layers in the ‘Spring Rounds’ section and elsewhere needs sustaining instruments rather than those whose tone will only decay after the initial attack. And however honourable the effort to replicate the original’s sophisticated timbral palette, it sounded just like that, a pale reflection. With the famous solo at the beginning I don’t know what other percussion instrument might have more readily captured the timbre (in the original) of the bassoon operating outside of its normal register; in any case, the marimba didn’t satisfy. The unusual scoring also includes Wagner tubas, whose unique sonority was also missed. Even the orgiastic character of Stravinsky’s rhythmic stylings, which one might have expected to be more pronounced, was in fact less distinctive that usual.

Being severed from the harmony explains this loss of impact, I think; the two Grubingers and a third percussionist, Leonhard Schmidinger, were too loud, forcing the Önders into a percussive sound, of which there was plenty enough, at the expense of depth of tone. The clash between thematic material that is predominantly diatonic and uncomplicated in its construction, and the complexity of what results when Stravinsky piles these simple units on top of each other and grinds away, is the beating heat of what we perceive as the primitive inner tension which drives this work. But for that to give abrasive voice to the work’s rhythmic impulses requires the notes to be audible, and in what should go down as a well-intended failure, too much detail was lost.

One skilful moment of transfer in The Rite of Spring had been for Grubinger junior to play some of the spikier motifs on the xylophone, and it was on that instrument that he gave a virtuosic encore of a Weimar ragtime number accompanied by the two Önders and with an amusing kazoo solo from Leonhard Schmidinger. The arrangement here, I am happy to report, was exemplary.