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Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
Symphony No. 4 New York (1967) [26:04]
Violin Concerto (1942-45) [34:03]*
Yfrah Neaman (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
rec. 1972, London. ADD
originally released in 1970 as Decca Argo ZRG701
LYRITA SRCD.274 [60.14]
Experience Classicsonline


The Catalan-born composer Roberto Gerhard studied piano with Granados, composition with Pedrell, then later became a pupil of Schoenberg. Following the Spanish Civil War he left Spain and moved to Paris, before permanently settling in Cambridge in 1939. Traces of Spanish rhythms and melodic fragments together with serial technique may seem an unlikely combination, yet that is indeed what we find in many of Gerhard’s major works. Amidst the clamour for more performances and recordings of mid-20th-century British music, it is perhaps forgotten that Gerhard was active at the same time in the UK. He may be regarded as a cerebral composer, his music challenging, sharp-edged and brilliant. However, it should be stressed that he also possesses that relatively rare quality of musical humour. His wonderful late astrological works - Gemini, Libra and Leo - provide ample evidence of warmth, vibrancy and a haunting beauty. It is true that there are now recordings of many of his works, but concert performances are disgracefully scarce. My first experience of Gerhard, thirty years ago, was Dorati’s excellent LP of the First Symphony – reissue on  CD greatly overdue!

The Fourth Symphony is a powerful, virtuosic one-movement work for very large orchestra. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Its various sections display the composer’s typical alternations of feverish activity and “Zen-like stasis” – to quote Paul Conway’s notes. Gerhard himself described the static passages as “action in very slow motion … the magic sense of uneventfulness”.

Colin Davis is not generally associated with cutting-edge modernism. However, he did record much Stravinsky and Tippett, and he actually gave the premiere of Gerhard 4 - with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - a couple of years before making this recording. Nonetheless, I feel that this is not Davis’s natural territory. He sounds dutiful rather than 100% committed, civilised rather than emotionally involved. There is a distinct lack of danger, that knife-edge quality which is essential if the fast, incisive and aggressive sections of the symphony are to make their full impact. I was underwhelmed by this performance, which really gives the impression of little more than a run-through.

Immediately obvious from its opening bars is the lyricism of the much earlier Violin Concerto, a work which was not premiered until 1950. Here Gerhard’s Spanish origins are also more apparent than in the symphony – and not simply in the use of castanets. The first movement includes a cadenza which gives way to a short recapitulation, then a highly original scherzo/coda. Gerhard himself sanctioned the small cut towards the end of this movement. 

The darkly romantic slow movement begins with a chorale derived from the note-row on which Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet is based – a tribute for his 70th birthday. The mood of this haunting music is well captured by Yfrah Neaman, who, unlike Davis, was very closely associated with contemporary music. However, I have reservations about his performance generally. His tone is not the most ingratiating – in fact it is rather tart.

The entertaining, exuberant qualities of the last movement are equally well captured, with Davis seeming generally more comfortable. Here, in addition to the Spanish elements, we find quotations from La Marseillaise and a distinctly Soldier’s Tale moment near the end. This is a really fine concerto, and its neglect is simply shameful. Perhaps the terrific young Alina Ibragimova, having already explored lesser-known territory in her Hartmann and Roslavets CDs, might be persuaded to record it.

This CD may serve as an introduction to two of Gerhard’s major works, but for superior performances one needs to invest in Bamert and Charlier respectively – both on Chandos.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

see also Reviews by John France and Rob Barnett

see also The Symphonies of Roberto Gerhard by Paul Conway




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