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Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
Dances from Don Quixote (1940-1) [15:28]
Symphony No. 1 (1952-3) [37:17]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London; first released on LP January 1965

Roberto Gerhard’s music is seldom performed these days, so a biographical sketch may be useful.

Gerhard was born at Valls near Barcelona, to a French mother and a Catalan father. He studied piano with Granados and composition with Felipe Pedrell, who awakened in him a taste for Catalan folk music. He spent five years (1923-28) as a Schoenberg pupil - in Vienna and Berlin. When Franco assumed power, Gerhard decided not to return to Spain, emigrating to Paris. In 1940 he settled in Cambridge, where he remained for thirty years until his death. (Although his surname is of Swiss–German origin, Gerhard preferred the Spanish soft G pronunciation, wishing to minimize German associations during the Second World War). Although Schoenberg’s influence is clear in Gerhard’s use of serialism in the 50’s and 60’s, identifying him as an avant-garde figure, there is often at least a hint of Spanish flavour in his music. He composed the Sheridan-inspired opera The Duenna, a few ballet scores, four symphonies, three concertos and a concerto for orchestra, the cantata The Plague and other vocal works, piano compositions, a guitar piece, and diverse chamber works including two string quartets. Because his music is sharp-edged, brilliant and often challenging, Gerhard tends to be regarded as a cerebral composer, but this is a very restricted view. It must be stressed that he also possesses that relatively rare quality of musical humour, while such works as his late astrological sequence - Gemini, Libra and Leo – are characterised by warmth, vibrancy and a haunting beauty.

The First Symphony, which I first bought on recommendation in its original LP form, is a consistently engaging piece of terrific energy and invention. I was delighted by it fifty years ago and on returning to it I find even more to admire. After a six-bar quasi-introduction, in which a chord is constructed from successive entries, the momentum takes hold of you. This music is wonderfully alive. For those interested in such matters it should be mentioned that the notes in those first six bars comprise a twelve-note series. The fast sections of the outer movements have a restless quality which often derives from the obsessive repetition of short rhythmic units. Some of these, such as the tuba’s repetition of B-C-B (8 minutes into the piece, soon after rehearsal figure 34), are delightfully eccentric and perhaps not to be taken too seriously. Humour is not the first quality which comes to mind in connection with contemporary music, so it is refreshing to discover that it is an essential part of Gerhard’s language. No less striking is the motoric effect of Gerhard’s little motifs as he screws up the tension. One scherzando fugato passage, begun by solo clarinet, is fairly short-lived, developing into a riot of acciaccaturas. Subsequently a similar passage of imitative writing for the strings begins in the first violins, seemingly stuck on an ostinato alternating two notes, jumping between C and the D flat a seventh lower. Again the effect is playful. In the coda the tuba motif already mentioned becomes more insistent, and the ending - rather reminiscent of The Rite of Spring – is abrupt. The opening section of the slow movement, with its low notes on the piano, is an example of the static atmosphere which Gerhard likes to create. In his later works he often juxtaposes passages of feverish activity and such periods of stasis. He described the static passages as “action in very slow motion … the magic sense of uneventfulness”. A contrastingly very active pianissimo passage – strings sul ponticello – follows, as Gerhard again constructs a succession of contrasting spans. The extended finale also has its persistent little figures, such as the skittish idea introduced by the flute (about one minute, twelve seconds in, figure 76), but also includes typical periods of calm. The work ends with pianissimo harmonics.

In his introduction to the work, Gerhard made some interesting comments: “I was concerned with the possibility of evolving a large-scale work as a continuous train of musical invention that would progress – much as a poem progresses – by the strength and direction of its inherent potentialities alone, growing and branching out freely, without being forced into predetermined channels. In other words, I discarded the traditional symphonic framework, with its exposition, themes, development and recapitulations … Today a theme may become a period piece of musical furniture, and it is possible to imagine an infinite variety of landmarks of an entirely different type that will orientate the listener equally well”. It would be a mistake to infer from this an excuse for formlessness. Gerhard’s lucidity and intelligence embrace an acute sense of structure, along with his mastery of the orchestra, his delight in sound. His masterly handling of percussion in particular should serve as a model.

The one-act ballet Don Quixote contains some of Gerhard’s most immediately attractive music. This 15-minute set of dances – one of various suites which he drew from the work – has an unmistakably Spanish flavour, but Gerhard’s own character would be equally obvious whichever style he espoused.

Dorati and the BBC Symphony Orchestra give near-ideal accounts of both works. That such marvellous music in stunning performances had to wait fifty years for issue on CD is very disappointing. We all have our favourite neglected composers for whom we carry a flag (Gerhard is near the top of my list), but it is a depressing fact that much very good or even great music is destined to remain unknown. There is just not room in the repertoire for everything of quality – a problem compounded by the increasingly conservative approach to programme planning. Thus commercial discs play a vital role and, as the two mediums of concert performance and recordings run on markedly different tracks (except when a new CD needs promoting!) then we should be doubly grateful for enlightened recording companies. For those unfamiliar with Gerhard’s music, this disc would make an excellent introduction, hopefully leading to further discoveries. To compare merely his First and Fourth Symphonies (1952-3 and 1967 respectively) is to realise a tremendous development, one which may be followed most rewardingly. In the 1990’s Chandos adopted Gerhard’s cause with a series of fine recordings under Matthias Bamert – the symphonies, the Concerto for orchestra, Violin Concerto and other major works.

Philip Borg-Wheeler




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