For a long time, percussion was somewhat neglected in European art music. Because although timpani, drums and cymbals were always able to boast of impressive highlights in the orchestra, they otherwise lived a shadowy existence – often merely giving the beat. Changing this was the express goal of the multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, whose spectrum ranges from eruptive cascades of sound to delicately-honed bell tones. Above all, it is thanks to him that more and more concertgoers are discovering percussive sound worlds in which the athletic commitment of the player, the physical presence and power of the sounds and the richness of colour of the range of instruments available combine to form fascinating, physical and sensuous music. Not for nothing is the aura of extreme sports an indispensable element of the art of drumming.
For his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Martin Grubinger performs the concerto for percussion and orchestra Speaking Drums, composed for him by Peter Eötvös. The title of the work is self-explanatory as the soloist is required not only to drum but also to speak and shout. “I’ve seen and heard this with Indian drummers,” Eötvös explained in an interview in 2016. “They drum what they say. That is, they speak a certain text and they play drums at the same tempo, in the same rhythm. This makes it very colourful, but also very expressive, as if they were telling a story with the instrument. I took on that approach for my piece.” The texts come from Sándor Weöres, who has written many nonsense poems that fulfil purely a rhythmic function, and Jayadeva, a 12th-century Indian poet. “All the texts”, says Eötvös, “have impressive rhythms. Translating them for percussion and orchestra is a pleasure.”
The concert, conducted by Zubin Mehta, opens with Edgard Varèse’s Intégrales, which offers not only the most virtuosic, refined sound, but also stirring rhythms, as the voices of the four woodwind and six brass instruments are strikingly contrasted with 17 percussion instruments in the hands of four players. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite Scheherazade, which gives musical form to various episodes and imagery of the Arabian Nights, also offers refined orchestral sounds: “The Sea and Sinbadʼs ship, the fantastic story of the Kalandar Prince, Prince and Princess, the festival at Baghdad and the ship that breaks against a cliff surmounted by a bronze horseman” (Rimsky-Korsakov).