If you know any of the early work of Roberto Gerhard
- and by early I mean pre-Second World War - then you will know that
this Catalonian pupil of Schoenberg was still much indebted to Falla
and other Spanish composers like his first teacher Felipe Pedrell although
he had his own distinctive voice. He attempted in pieces like Alegrias
(1943) and the earlier Albada, Interludi I Dansa
to add to his
national heritage a pan-European gloss of more searching harmonies and
transparent textures. By the time of the First Symphony (1952-3) and
certainly by the time of this First Quartet, written during the same
period, his admiration for Schoenberg had taken complete hold and he
had become a serial composer. The Schoenbergs even came to stay with
the Gerhards near Barcelona, when the former needed some healthy recuperation
from the cold of a German winter in 1931.
Now at this point I don’t want potential readers to click to a
different review so I will add immediately that this First Quartet is
approachable and fascinating. It is succinct and keeps your attention
and, in the case of the third movement, grave, very beautiful, otherworldly
and atmospheric. The outer movements have some extraordinary and original
textures and in addition are rhythmically exciting - perhaps a Spanish
influence. Schoenberg would not have conceived of such vitality and
only the second movement Scherzo actually marked ‘con vivacita’
fails to impress in its all too brief appearance.
Actually this is probably Gerhard’s fourth essay in the form.
As a young man, when studying with Schoenberg and later, he tackled
three now largely lost quartets. Consequently this is a mature and concentrated
piece, amazingly virtuosic, especially in the finale, and mostly tense
and emotional. The Arditti Quartet has such a vast repertoire of difficult
modern pieces and they throw this music off brilliantly.
In 1960 Gerhard completed his Third Symphony “Collages”
in which he used electronic sounds combined with an orchestra. It’s
as if these sounds were still in his head when composing the single
movement Second Quartet. This is quintessential Gerhard. There are moments
of stasis which Malcolm MacDonald in his excellent booklet notes, in
quoting the composer, writes of the music having a “magic sense
of uneventfulness”. The composer called these moments “time-lattices”
but there are also moments of mad insectile activity - rhythmically
fluid and crepuscular. Gerhard uses a great many idiomatically unique
effects for the strings like col legno pizzicato, glissandi with the
fingernails and flageolet glissandi. One can easily hear where Ligeti
in his First Quartet started from. One can also discern the musical
DNA of another of Gerhard’s favourite composers, Béla Bartók.
These ‘voices’ are all used individually and expressively
and although by 1962 standards this was an avant-garde work - what came
to be called ‘squeaky-gate’ music - its contrasts of dark
and then brightly lit visions of a distant landscape continually hold
the attention. Fifty years on it seems to be totally in tune with the
overall development of twentieth century music.
Composed between these quartets came the extraordinary Chaconne for
solo violin. After the opening statement there are eleven variants which,
helpfully, have been separately tracked by Aeon. The work was originally
written for the great Yfrah Neaman (1923-2003) who went on to record
Gerhard’s Violin Concerto for Argo (reissued on Lyrita
I can think of no one contemporary specialist in violin technique more
suitable than Irvine Arditti to take up Neaman’s mantle. It is
a formidable work and needs much concentration from both the player
and indeed the listener to grasp its subtleties. That said, the development
and gradually build-up of the ideas can be sensed right from the first
page. Tempi are continually contrasted and, characteristically, the
chaconne theme itself is a tone row. It’s one that can seem to
turn tonal and almost romantic in some slow and more lyrical sections.
This is a fine disc, superbly played and well worth purchasing but I
suspect that a little prior knowledge and interest in Roberto Gerhard
might help before doing so. Even so, the quartets are approachable despite
their rarity value. That can be explained by the fact that music like
this is, at present, singularly out of fashion. That may be why Gerhard
has not been heard that much in the last decade. It’s good to
have him back.
The booklet comes with black and white photos of the composer and the
performers and some very apt notes by Malcolm MacDonald.