MUSIC / Well knit: Meredith Oakes on recent offerings including Falla, Gerhard and Faure

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The Independent Culture
Manuel de Falla and Roberto Gerhard each wrote harpsichord concertos, and Maggie Cole plays both. Bedazzled by the array of music offered by this spring's Spanish Arts Festival, I was only expecting Falla at the London Sinfonietta's Almeida concert on Sunday.

The Gerhard is not exactly more dissonant than Falla's incisive, vivid abstract, but it's far more Viennese: 12 very Schoenberg tones packaged, idiosyncratically, in four- square ostinati that ripple steadily like knitting needles making some unexpected sort of garment. Maggie Cole swayed into it nicely without sounding definite enough to entirely own it. Tom-toms and swoops from strings offered a buoyant alternative energy field.

The Gerhard Piano Concerto brought into full public view a hitherto shadowy composer. Serial also, it plunges into a dark, slow, twisting obsession with a tonic pedal-note, a low volcanic bubbling that every now and again pitches an octave up the keyboard like a splash of lava. There are suggestions of cabaret sevenths and ninths, and of deep flattened flamenco notes, even of the Dies Irae. But this long slow movement, which must be one of the glories of Gerhard's output, really sounds unlike anything before or since. Rolf Hind, the soloist, was inspired.

The strings and percussion of the Sinfonietta played intelligently for Diego Masson, though Gerhard's textures, curiously dovetailed cues and inexorable rhythmic momentum were hard work sometimes. Welcome guests were the Brindisi Quartet, playing Anatomia Fractal de Los Angeles, world premiere of a Spanish Ministry of Culture commission from Tomas Marco. A string of transparent, sinewy episodes lay neatly end to end. A recurrent whispered, curling, high- wire episode for all four players divided other sections, often proceeding in antiphonal pairs. Tactile, atmospheric music played at full stretch.

The Orchestra of St John's, Smith Square, and the National Youth Music Theatre gave Falla's seldom seen Retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter's Puppet Show) on Thursday and Friday.

The NYMT had a ball with masks, mime and movable staging, creating 'castles in Spain' with piled-up boxes. Children in adult-sized masks played the puppets with acrobatic fluency and convincing expression. Two excellent boys - Chris Jonns and Richard Ainslie - chanted the marionette history of Don Gayferos and his kidnapped wife Melisendra. Jeremy James Taylor and John Wright's exuberant, sometimes hyperactive production, first seen in Edinburgh in 1989, left full scope for the pathos of Don Quixote, given some of Falla's quietest, tenderest music. Karl Morgan Daymond sang with memorable sweetness and nobility and - even masked - was a compelling presence on stage.

Jean-Phillippe Collard, at the Wigmore Hall last Wednesday, deployed his Errol Garner crunching style with driving sureness in Schumann, Faure and Poulenc. The Fantasiestucke and Kreisleriana of Schumann could have done with less French rationality, more hush and a readier sense of the bizarre. The Faure and Poulenc were bronzy, cool, beautifully clear and continuous: the mysterious, wide- flung, Prokofiev-style octave episode in Faure's Theme and Variations Op 73 was bewitching. But why, overall, did the Wigmore Hall Steinway sound so harsh?

Spanish Arts Festival sponsored by Spanish Ministry of Culture, Royal Bank of Scotland, Banco Santander, bsis, BT and Iberia. St John's concert also sponsored by Thorn EMI