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SEPTEMBER 2010, 'Roberto Gerhard: Piano Concerto', Naxos 8.557290

SEPTEMBER 2010, 'Roberto Gerhard: Piano Concerto', Naxos 8.557290

Peter Donohoe
The Northern Sinfonia
Reviewed by Damian Rees
Roberto Gerhard is perhaps one of the greatest mid-twentieth-century composers from Spain, in fact possibly one of the great composers of the twentieth century with his own distinctive voice sounding throughout his impressive output, from the impressionist first pieces through a more nationalistic style to a modernism that embraced many new compositional techniques. From a personal use of Schoenbergian serialism (one of his teachers) to the use of electronics and advanced playing techniques for what are, usually in the later works, huge percussion sections.

Gerhard seems to be a composer who is often overlooked, perhaps being a Spaniard in middle England (he lived and taught at Cambridge from the late 1940s to the end of his life) didn't appeal to the music establishment and indeed he joined a huge list of talented composers from all over Europe who fled here after the war - though most of them to escape from Jewish persecution - who were neglected. Gerhard however did get a lot of commissions, several from the Cheltenham Festival and others from major orchestras like the New York Phil (Symphony No.4 'New York'). He even had an English publisher in later years, Oxford University Press, but his music has taken time to enter the repertoire of orchestras and soloists. However, there have now been a spate of excellent recordings which have encompassed most of his major works.

The Piano Concerto dates from 1951 (not 1961 as the Naxos CD label states on the back) has been recorded several times before but it is the Naxos release from last year that shines as a powerful and persuasive performance of this work. The CD features three other British piano concertos (though I wouldn't call the Gerhard a typical British work, for obvious reasons), including the wonderful Ferguson Concerto plus two much slighter, highly enjoyable and perhaps instantly forgettable pieces by less well-known composers).

Gerhard's Piano Concerto follows on from the Violin Concerto a few years earlier with its exploration of Spanish dance and rhythm with an added layer of post-serial bite. The work is scored for piano and strings, so dispenses with the percussion that is so often associated with major Gerhard orchestral works. Indeed the piece is similar in length and orchestration, save one percussionist of the slightly later and more 'spiky' and 'brittle' Harpsichord Concerto.

The Piano Concerto is a relatively short work at just over 20 minutes, but what a wonderful 20 minutes they are, from the driving dissonance of the fist movement to the eloquence of the slow second movement with its series of arpeggios that build to a wonderful climax before the fast six-eight finale kicks in with what is almost a high-speed rondo.

The piano part is as virtuosic and one would hope and expect from a major concerto and Peter Donohoe's playing is more than up for the challenge. He seems to find the right balance of hard hitting playing in the first and last movements with a wonderful feel for the musical line in the slow central movement. For me it is this central movement (the longest in the piece) that is the real find and the one that has the most to say. The arpeggios at the start of it with their repeated notes sound more like a distant reminder of some of the Spanish harpsichord works from a few centuries earlier, yet the language is completely modern. Perhaps with the main repeated notes there is the image of the guitar tremolo found in so many Spanish guitar masterworks of the late 19th century. I don't think this illusion is just by chance, for Gerhard was very much aware and proud of his Catalan heritage.

The solo playing is excellent and Donohoe seems to really enjoy playing the piece. However, the Northern Sinfonia does at times (especially in the faster and the more rhythmically intricate moments) waiver. I am deeply impressed that Peter Donohoe conducts them from the piano though perhaps this why some of the more extreme moments seem a little less focused. Donohoe's tempos and understanding of the score, however, seem spot on. Again, they seem best in the slow movement where their intonation is excellent and the backdrop they create is convincing. There also seems to be a lack of real dynamic contrast in the faster string passages where many of the crescendos don't seem to have the force that Gerhard seems to want and write into the score. However, in their defence the string parts are fiendish at times and they play with real energy that carries the piano along. The entire work is performed with the real passion that it so deserves.

The recording quality is excellent with the piano being very clear and well-balanced against the strings. There is also a lot of depth to the sound and many of the more subtle string passages are captured with a real resonance.

If you don't know this piece already then you should. Do not be put off if modern music is not your thing; this concerto is engaging and a real classic of the mid-twentieth century. With a performance of this class (especially from the soloist), no serious Piano Concerto and especially Gerhard fan will want to be without this recording.  For just under £6 it is a true winner and a bargain, even if bought just for the Gerhard.



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