Queen Elizabeth Hall
Roberto Gerhard: Libra
Joan Magrané Figuera: Faula
Raquel García-Tomás: aequae
Lisa Illean: Januaries
A miserable, rainy night seemed just the right time for the London Sinfonietta, in association with the Institut Ramon Llull, to light up the Queen Elizabeth Hall with what they called ‘A Catalan Celebration’. 2020, the year without music, marked fifty years since the death of Roberto Gerhard. It was doubly welcome, then, to have this celebration of mostly Catalan music take place in 2021, the year when music tentatively returned to our lives. To hear fine performances not only of music by Gerhard, but also works by contemporary (to us) Catalan composers, Joan Magrané Figuera and Raquel García-Tomás, as well as one by the Australian-born, London-resident Lisa Illean, would have been a splendid opportunity at any time. It also helped dispel a little of the current misery outside.
Gerhard himself was represented by two of his three late astrological pieces, Libra and Leo, from 1968 and 1969 respectively (the 1966 Gemini for piano and violin missing). Both ensemble works were premiered and recorded by the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton. I have not heard those (nor any other) recordings, but these performances under Edmon Colomer spoke clearly not only of excellence in execution but of deep familiarity and understanding of Gerhard’s music, of its language and colour, but also of its structure becoming living form in time. The éclat, to use an intentionally loaded term, of Libra’s opening chord having grabbed one’s intention, one immediately garnered a post-Schoenbergian (post-Webern too, I think) sense of every line counting, heard through exemplary clarity in scoring and performance alike. One might have heard the guitar as ‘Spanish’, but I think that would have been lazy; both Schoenberg and Webern used the instrument in ensemble works too. One felt, not merely recognised, a multi-movement structure condensed into one, placing it in a tradition dating back at least to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony—and, of course, beyond to Liszt and Schubert—though here, perhaps, sonata-form inheritance, Gerhard’s own Third Symphony notwithstanding, was not so apparent. A dialectic between abstraction and Romantic sensibility lay the heart of what we heard. Glistening, above all it sang. Music of exile? It is other things too, yet that conclusion did not seem unreasonable, especially at a close that approached, or perhaps better referred to, a sort of modal tonality born of ‘national’ roots.
Magrané’s Faula (Fable) followed. Written in 2017 and inspired by a novel of the same name by Jaume C. Pons Alorda, it seeks, to quote the composer, not to ‘elucidate his narrative,’ but ‘first and foremost to use Pons Alorda’s ideas and aesthetic world to conceive of its structure texture, and sound’. Four sections, essentially sets of musical material, recur throughout the work, taking their own line but also necessarily interacting. What soon struck me, even within the first, ‘Mosso, con foco’, was a fascinating polyphonic tendency—would it be too fanciful to ascribe this to the composer’s interest in Renaissance polyphony?—of individual, sometime fractious lines combining to effect that ‘line’ of which we speak so often as the prevailing melos, as Wagner would have had it, of so much Western music. A phrase that came to my mind, knowing nothing alas of the novel, was multiple tectonics; there was musical grit, it seemed, both in that necessary interaction between different types of material but also in their contrast. This could produce music of great beauty: atmosphere, propulsion, emotion. There was also, I felt, a sense of play to it: of chance, of contingency, however carefully designed, and yet productively within a framework of structural determination. Schoenberg’s—Bach’s for that matter—dialectic between freedom and determinism seemed in the context of this concert to extend via Gerhard to newer music, not necessarily in the sense of ‘influence’, but as a way to listen, even if it were only mine.
García-Tomas’s aequae (2012) is divided into six parts of equal (hence the title) duration, two minutes each. In its exploration of ‘the relationship of equality between the musical materials that make it up as well as the paradoxes that such equality can produce’, it made its way with strikingly powerful integral development, through timbral as well as harmonic tension. Bowing cymbals, for instance, proved generative yet also resistant: an observation of the work in microcosm. There was a slower pulse (than in the hectic contrasts of Magrané), yet much happening within that pulse. Instruments not previously heard, such as saxophone and muted trombone, opened up new aural vistas: the art of programming, it seemed, very much part of the overall performance. Likewise the lack of strings, if only in this context, suggested something colder, even icier.
After the interval, we heard Illean’s Januaries (2017), shaped in some sense by ‘memories of summers spent as a child with my grandparents in Queensland’. What might initially have seemed more textural music in quality had a definite guiding thread, suggestive initially, if only to me, of a process of melting. Descending, sliding figures were part of that; so too were ever-transforming harmonic fields. Distant bells first seemed to evoke something, or perhaps the point was that they did not; they were part of the landscape, of a space that could not necessarily be delineated, that slipped between our fingers, even our ears.
For the final piece, we returned to Gerhard for Leo. Again, I was struck by its opening éclat, though its development and general character took a different path. There was again complexity to this music, but never superfluity; everything mattered, had a relationship to the greater whole, even though one knew it would take greater familiarity precisely to discern it. Serialism, almost as if a magic square before our ears, was a guiding framework but never in itself the point. This was a powerful, directed, and highly dramatic performance; much, clearly, was at stake. A hieratic section, initially brass-led, reminiscent of chorale writing without simply reproducing it, was heard as the work’s emotional core, prior to initiation of further frenetic activity, material ever transforming before our ears. As first clarinet, then flute sang at the close a pentatonic, folk-like melody, suggesting this discovery may actually have underlain what previous we had heard, yet without our recognising it as such, exile as reminiscence in surroundings transformed returned, poignantly, to our aural stage.