The Catalan-born composer Roberto Gerhard studied
piano with Granados, composition with Pedrell, then later became
a pupil of Schoenberg. Following the Spanish Civil War he left
Spain and moved to Paris, before permanently settling in Cambridge
in 1939. Traces of Spanish rhythms and melodic fragments together
with serial technique may seem an unlikely combination, yet
that is indeed what we find in many of Gerhard’s major works.
Amidst the clamour for more performances and recordings of mid-20th-century
British music, it is perhaps forgotten that Gerhard was active
at the same time in the UK. He may be regarded as a cerebral
composer, his music challenging, sharp-edged and brilliant.
However, it should be stressed that he also possesses that relatively
rare quality of musical humour. His wonderful late astrological
works - Gemini, Libra and Leo - provide
ample evidence of warmth, vibrancy and a haunting beauty. It
is true that there are now recordings of many of his works,
but concert performances are disgracefully scarce. My first
experience of Gerhard, thirty years ago, was Dorati’s excellent
LP of the First Symphony – reissue on CD greatly overdue!
The Fourth Symphony is a powerful, virtuosic
one-movement work for very large orchestra. It was commissioned
by the New York Philharmonic. Its various sections display the
composer’s typical alternations of feverish activity and “Zen-like
stasis” – to quote Paul Conway’s notes. Gerhard himself described
the static passages as “action in very slow motion … the magic
sense of uneventfulness”.
Colin Davis is not generally associated with
cutting-edge modernism. However, he did record much Stravinsky
and Tippett, and he actually gave the premiere of Gerhard 4
- with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - a couple of years before
making this recording. Nonetheless, I feel that this is not
Davis’s natural territory. He sounds dutiful rather than 100%
committed, civilised rather than emotionally involved. There
is a distinct lack of danger, that knife-edge quality which
is essential if the fast, incisive and aggressive sections of
the symphony are to make their full impact. I was underwhelmed
by this performance, which really gives the impression of little
more than a run-through.
Immediately obvious from its opening bars is
the lyricism of the much earlier Violin Concerto, a work which
was not premiered until 1950. Here Gerhard’s Spanish origins
are also more apparent than in the symphony – and not simply
in the use of castanets. The first movement includes a cadenza
which gives way to a short recapitulation, then a highly original
scherzo/coda. Gerhard himself sanctioned the small cut towards
the end of this movement.
The darkly romantic slow movement begins with
a chorale derived from the note-row on which Schoenberg’s Fourth
Quartet is based – a tribute for his 70th birthday. The mood
of this haunting music is well captured by Yfrah Neaman, who,
unlike Davis, was very closely associated with contemporary
music. However, I have reservations about his performance generally.
His tone is not the most ingratiating – in fact it is rather
The entertaining, exuberant qualities of the
last movement are equally well captured, with Davis seeming
generally more comfortable. Here, in addition to the Spanish
elements, we find quotations from La Marseillaise and
a distinctly Soldier’s Tale moment near the end. This
is a really fine concerto, and its neglect is simply shameful.
Perhaps the terrific young Alina Ibragimova, having already
explored lesser-known territory in her Hartmann and Roslavets
CDs, might be persuaded to record it.
This CD may serve as an introduction to two of
Gerhard’s major works, but for superior performances one needs
to invest in Bamert and Charlier respectively – both on Chandos.
also Reviews by John France and Rob
see also The
Symphonies of Roberto Gerhard by Paul Conway