Monday, 13 February 2012

Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No. 4 ‘New York’ & Violin Concerto


Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) 
Symphony No. 4 ‘New York (1967) Violin Concerto (1942-1945) 
Yfrah Neamann, violin.
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis
Lyrita SRCD. 274
  
The bottom line – at the top of the review is - I am amazed by Roberto Gerhard’s Fourth Symphony ‘New York.’  It is a stunning work.
Now this piece is about as far removed from my usual diet of ‘classical music,’ as I guess it was in the Lyrita studios. I imagine that when it was recorded some of the staff must have wondered if the record company was taking a new and more avant garde direction. It has been said that when this work (and the Violin Concerto) was recorded (superbly and magisterially) by the Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 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 further recordings.

A few brief notes follow for those (including myself) who are not up to speed with Roberto Gerhard’s life and works.
Gerhard was in some ways an eclectic composer – he was initially influenced by Debussy and Ravel. However, when he commenced his musical career he studied with Granados and Pedrell in Barcelona and with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern in Vienna and Berlin.
Gerhard’s early works were oriented towards chamber music – but in the mid 1930’s he began to turn his attention to large scale works. Interestingly one of his early pieces, written in 1928, was a Wind Quintet. This work is a kind of ‘fusion’ between the dodecaphony of the Viennese School and 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 works tended to be a combination of Spanish muse and a variety of other harmonic and textural styles.
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 his 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. It was written between 1942 and 1945 and 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. However 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 Arnold 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 this work 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. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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