The bottom line – at
the top of the review – is that I am
amazed by Roberto Gerhard’s Fourth
Symphony. It is a stunning work
and about as far removed from my usual
diet of ‘classical music,’ as I guess
it was from the Lyrita mainstream. It
has been said that when this work (and
the Violin Concerto) was recorded, superbly
and magisterially, by Colin Davis and
the BBCSO, it would have been regarded
as a one-off: It was destined to be
‘put in the can’ for all time. Fortunately
that was not to be the case: Chandos
and Auvidis have seen to that with two
A few brief notes follow
for those, including myself, who are
not up to speed with Gerhard’s life
and works. He was in some ways an eclectic
composer. He was initially influenced
by Debussy and Ravel. However at the
outset of his career he studied with
Granados and Pedrell in Barcelona and
with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern
in Vienna and Berlin. His early works
were oriented towards chamber music
but during the mid-1930s he began to
turn his attention to large-scale works.
Interestingly one of his early pieces,
written in 1928, was a Wind Quintet.
This is a kind of ‘fusion’ between the
dodecaphony of the Viennese School and
the more folksy elements from his native
Catalonia. After arriving in Cambridge,
Gerhard produced his two great ballet
scores, Don Quixote (1940-41)
and Pandora (1944-45). A year
or two later his opera The Duenna
was composed. These tended to be
a combination of Spanish muse and a
variety of other harmonic and textural
The four symphonies
occupied some 15 years of Gerhard’s
life and are regarded as representing
the ‘pinnacle of his career.’ With these
pieces the composer began to abandon
the Spanish influence in favour of highly
complex structures which emphasised
‘contrasts of detail’ rather than more
traditional development of themes and
motifs. Gerhard was quite prepared to
use modern musical developments – for
example he uses electronic sounds in
the Third Symphony.
The present Fourth
Symphony (1967) is deemed to be
one of the composer’s masterpieces.
It is composed in his ‘late’ style.
It is not necessary in this review to
give an analysis of this work as this
has been well done by Paul
Conway in these pages. However I
want to say three things. Firstly this
Symphony is not hidebound by
any compositional method. It is not
possible to hear the construction lines
or aural evidence of mathematical tropes.
Secondly I am not sure that I agree
with Rob Barnett’s statement that this
Symphony "stutters, creeps,
excoriates and bawls." To my ear
the entire score is a tapestry of sounds,
colours and musical images that seem
to progress to a logical conclusion
- the journey is never in doubt. And
lastly, for sheer imagination this work
is hard to beat: there is never a moment
when interest is lost or when the listener
is in danger of becoming bored.
I accept that the Fourth
Symphony may not be to everyone’s
taste yet even a superficial hearing
- with ones prejudices put to one side
- must surely reveal a work that balances
introspection, nostalgia, revolutionary
sounds and sheer invention. And the
bottom line is that this work moves
me: that must be my greatest recommendation.
For the curious, the
‘New York’ subtitle simply refers to
the fact that it was commissioned by
the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
for its 125th Anniversary.
There is no suggestion of ‘A Catalonian
in New York,’ Gershwin-like allusion.
To paraphrase David
Mellor, if you like the ‘Symphony’
you will love the Violin Concerto.
On the face of it this is a totally
different can of beans. Rob Barnett
has described this well by noting that
"there is a connection with melody
and an evident allegiance for the long
melodic line even if it does have an
astringent after-taste." That is
the Concerto in epitome. Bitter-sweet.
Gerhard wrote four major concerted works
– for piano and string orchestra, for
harpsichord, strings and percussion
and his superb Concerto for Orchestra.
The Violin Concerto was the first
to be written in this form and dates
from between 1942 and 1945. It was first
performed in Florence in 1950.
From the very first
note we are in a post-romantic sound-scape
which is at once familiar, yet challenging.
It is well described in the programme
notes as being "radiant and expressive."
This music is a successful blend of
"lush bi-tonality and occasional
serialism" which never becomes
confused. The truth is that there are
intimations of the composer’s later
‘exploratory’ style which is so evident
in the Fourth Symphony. The three
movements are an eclectic mix of styles
and purpose. The first is lyrical and
is presented in ‘sonata’ form complete
with obligatory cadenza. Of course there
are a number of allusions to Spanish
music in these pages – but it is not
folk music by any stretch of the imagination.
The slow movement is a tribute to Schoenberg
and as such it uses material from the
Viennese composer’s 4th
String Quartet. It is self-evident
that this is the emotional heart of
the work. Interestingly, for a ‘fiddle’
concerto, Gerhard makes use of piano
figuration in this movement. It is truly
effective. The sleeve-notes suggest
that this is ‘nostalgic’ music: it is
certainly reflective and introspective.
The last movement, by and large, is
a romp. Complete with the quotation
from La Marseillaise it is full
of energy and exuberance. The composer
meant the mood of this music to define
‘freedom’. There is a more sober moment
in the middle of this movement but it
soon gives way to a stunning presto
– complete with castanets - which ends
the piece in a strong and ‘defiant mood’.
The work is finely and sympathetically
played by Yfrah Neaman.
I enjoyed this CD.
It is not the sort of music I would
normally choose to listen to. Yet I
have been impressed, bowled over and
thoroughly chastened. I realise I need
to listen to more of Roberto Gerhard’s
work. For too long I have seen him as
being on the margins of European music.
He is actually a vital, interesting,
impressive and deeply moving composer
who well deserves our attention.
also review by Rob Barnett