The 50th anniversary last year of the death of Roberto Gerhard passed almost unnoticed, at least in the UK, where the Catalan-born composer lived for the last 32 years of his life. Since Opera North staged his opera La Duenna in 1992, very few of Gerhard’s major works have been heard here; his brilliantly coloured, incident-packed scores have effectively vanished from our concert halls.
Even the London Sinfonietta has hardly programmed any Gerhard since it put on an ambitious festival devoted to all the instrumental and ensemble music by him and his teacher Schoenberg in 1973, three years after his death. But it did offer a belated anniversary tribute by including Gerhard’s last ensemble pieces, Libra and Leo, in its latest concert alongside works by contemporary Catalan composers Joan Magrané Figuera and Raquel Garcia-Tomás, and the Australian Lisa Illean.
Gerhard’s two astrological pieces (Libra was his own star sign, and Leo that of his wife Poldi) are chamber symphonies in all but name, combining different movement-types into a seamless musical span. If some of their pointillist moments now seem dated, the Sinfonietta performances, conducted by Edmon Colomer, showed that they still come across as brilliant ensemble showpieces, full of diverting incident, with touching moments of lyricism. A flute threads a folk-like melody through Libra and a guitar adds an unmistakable Iberian flavour, while both works end with the same haunting lullaby.
Alongside Gerhard’s exuberance, the newer pieces mostly seemed pallid and uninvolving. Most impressive of the three was Illean’s Januaries, a spare, understated evocation of the Queensland landscapes she remembers from her childhood. Figuera’s Faula, based upon the novel of the same name by the Mallorcan poet Jaume C Pons Alorda, is an intricately interwoven single movement, perhaps too intricate to be effective, while Garcia-Tomás’s Aequae is a series of six tightly controlled, percussion-dominated snapshots - concerned with “temporal perception” apparently, but hard to come to terms with.