Nicholas Williams is impressed by a 100th anniversary tribute to a composer who answered the turbulence of the 20th century with musical moderation

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Roberto Gerhard / Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Is it possible to learn about a composer's mind from our experience of his music? The sound may reveal more than the photographic image. The cover of the Nash Ensemble's Roberto Gerhard 100th anniversary programme at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday showed a man at a desk, a metronome poised in the foreground, smoke curling up from a cigarette. An intense, introspective sort of face. Apart from its own remoteness from the camera, it gave little away.

There were more of Gerhard's passions displayed in the music, though passionate isn't quite the word for the work of this figure whose life bore its 20th-century scars of exile. A refugee from Franco, he ended his days in Cambridge, yet he had little to do with the university. Earlier, he had studied the Spanish folksong style with Felipe Pedrell and the serial method with Arnold Schoenberg, gaining fluency in both, yet retaining his own sense of ambivalent detachment. In his last decade, the 1960s, he followed the path of Varese and became fascinated with electronic sounds. But he also kept his links with the familiar world of the modern orchestra.

Detachment, it seems, was to him a kind of idee fixe. Despite his interest in the strange and the untested, by nature he stood on the cliff top, surveying the tempest from above. This might also be called undogmatic, and his story appeals to reasonable people on account of his evident humanity and aversion to extremes. There were symptoms of disengagement even in a set of early songs: the Cancionero de Pedrell, sung by soprano Rosemary Hardy with a line-up of harp, piano, percussion and octet. Like a Spanish version of the Songs of the Auvergne, each item implied a delicious tale that was illustrated with ravishing music. But there seemed a lack of involvement in the text. Gerhard was not overmuch concerned for the fate of his folksong characters.

Seven excellently performed French haiku offered ideal material for this kind of approach. The accompaniment of wind quartet and piano had terse, almost graphic images to partner the soprano through each fragment. "I caressed your floating stream" brought forth burbling flute and clarinet; the "Black-edged thought at the bottom of my cocktail of oblivion" was echoed by bassoon and clarinet grumbling around in their lowest register.

Two late pieces grew most strongly from the roots of Gerhard's character. The nervous, quirky Concert for Eight, with mandolin, guitar and accordion, showed a mind devoted to detail and removed from extra-musical events. Leo, his last work, was an emblematic portrayal of fortitude. An ebullient rising phrase on violin and trumpet said "energy" whenever it appeared. The music remained manly in its repression of direct expression until the late arrival of a clarinet folk-theme, delicately played by Michael Collins. Gerhard had partnered the work with another piece, Libra, his own star sign, which is much to the point. He was a man who weighed everything in the balance; a sensitive man who gave everything its worth. One felt it in the music of this polished tribute, along with the sense that the composer himself was getting his fair due.

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