Clarinet Colours I – 9 February

Sonata for clarinet and piano
Andantino for violin, clarinet and piano
Secret People – Study for a Film
Chamber Concerto – Adagio (arr. composer)
Quatour pour le fin du temps

Joan-Enric Lluna (clarinet)
Michael Thomas (violin)
Michael Stirling (cello)
Jan Gruithuyzen (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 February, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

An oddly put-together programme – part showcase for clarinettist Joan-Enric Lluna, part opportunity to present the UK premieres of three pieces by Roberto Gerhard.

Still the only Spanish composer post-Falla (though Catalan by birth and resident in Cambridge for his last three decades) to have established an international reputation, Gerhard’s fortunes have fluctuated considerably since his death in 1970. Recorded representation of his music is now wide, but performances remain infrequent, while his music pre-1939 is still in the process of rediscovery and assessment. Hence the two ’abstract’ pieces on the programme, apparently written for a Gerhard programme in Barcelona during December 1929 but omitted before the concert took place.

It seems likely that the Sonata is a movement, not necessarily the first, from a larger work that was left incomplete. Both here and in the Andantino, a brief but engaging set of variations, Gerhard’s resourcefulness in manipulating serial procedure to his own ends confirms the independence of spirit announced in the Wind Quintet of 1928. Lluna and Jan Gruithuyzen, attentive to detail and phrasing in the Sonata, were joined by Michael Thomas for the Andantino and an attractive novelty. Secret People was Gerhard’s first full-length film score, a 1951 political thriller which incidentally marked Audrey Hepburn’s screen debut. The present Study is ostensibly a trial run for the score, allowing Gerhard to demonstrate the musical treatment he had in mind. With its poetic allusions to The Song of the Birds (made famous by Casals) and the Catalan song L’Emigrant, and with a livelier central episode in the style of a sardana, this is a piece whose emotional intensity belies its modest length and resources, and deserves to be heard often.

The other works fleshed out the concert in uncertain fashion. While it made sense to include the ’Adagio’ that Berg arranged from his Chamber Concerto, this part-reduction, part-recreation needs ensemble playing of keen responsiveness if not to lose focus. Lluna and Gruithuyzen projected their contributions with commitment, but Thomas sounded distinctly uncomfortable in the awkwardly-lying violin part, undermining any sense of follow-through the performance might otherwise have had.

The Messiaen fared better. Always a difficult work to make coherent, this account lacked little in characterisation. Lluna captured a palpable sense of vastness in ’Abîme des oiseaux’, while Michael Stirling conveyed a vulnerability in ’Louange a l’Eternité de Jésus’ comparable to the transcendence that Thomas evinced in the closing ’Louange a l’Immortalité de Jésus’. Co-ordination elsewhere was not ideal, though the developmental intensity of ’Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel’ brought out the best in the ensemble. If not an incandescent performance, this was one of a thoughtfulness and insight to reaffirm the uniqueness of the work in Messiaen’s output as in the chamber repertoire as a whole.

Clarinet Colours II – featuring Joan Enric Lluna, with Nigel Clayton, in a recital for clarinet and piano – is at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 27 February

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