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Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
String Quartet No. 1 (1950-55) [22.09]
String Quartet No. 2 (1961) [13.38]
Chaconne for Solo Violin (1959) [18.48]
Arditti Quartet; Irvine Arditti (Chaconne)
rec. 16-19 May 2011, Sala 4 Alicia de Larrocha, L’Auditori de Barcelona, Spain
AEON AECD 1225 [54.33]

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.
Gary Higginson