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Alexander GOEHR (b.1934)
Orchestral Works

CD 1 [41.18]
Metamorphosis/Dance; Romanza for cello and orchestra
Moray Welsh (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Atherton
Rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, June 1981
CD2 [72.13]
… a musical offering ( J.S.B.1985); ‘Behold the Sun’ Op. 44a (1981) for coloratura soprano and orchestra; Lyric Pieces Op. 35 (1974); Sinfonia Op. 42 (1980)
Jeanine Thomas (soprano)
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
Rec. All Saints Church, Petersham, February/March 1990
NMC D095[2CDs: 41.18+72.13]

Any composer in the present climate who admits to being influenced by Schoenberg or even liking him is probably on a very sticky wicket. Dizzie Gillispie, yes, Schoenberg, no.

Immediately therefore, Alexander Goehr is set against fashion. But then he never was fashionable, only respected, as I recall after a performance of his Piano Trio in London in the mid-1970s when the best comment around was ‘that there was not a note wasted’.

The so called ‘Manchester school’ of composers included Max, Birtwistle and John Ogdon, better known, of course, as a pianist. Goehr was one of them and they all had Richard Hall as a teacher at one time. Goehr was the son of a Schoenberg pupil and was interested in what we sometimes call ‘expressionism’. He went on to study with Messiaen and so has tried to synthesize these two opposite concepts, the French, where time is divided up into frieze-like durations and the Germanic where time is the development and straining out of motifs passing in a dynamic continuum. I have to admit to be practically quoting here Bayan Northcott’s typically challenging notes in the useful and analytical booklet. They are however a helpful starting point in trying to understand why Goehr has never ‘taken-off’ in the same way as the other composers mentioned.

These two CDs come from recordings which were first released back in 1984 and 1991 and originally appeared on the Unicorn-Kanchana label. Of the two discs the first has possibly the most immediate appeal. The second (with an excellent booklet essay by Anthony Burton) has more variety. Well done to NMC for bringing these discs back to life following on from the recordings in their catalogue of the Piano Concerto/Symphony in One Movement (NMC DO23) and of ‘Arianna’ an opera after Monteverdi {NMC D057)

Metamorphosis/Dance is a colourful and passionate yet readily assimilated set of variations. Schoenberg would have recognized more the term Metamorphosis as of course would Richard Strauss, than Variation. I was reminded, when I listened again, of the opening viola melody in the Symphony in One Movement Op. 29 which is similarly metamorphosed, in this case into a powerful and abstract thirty-five minute orchestral tableau.

Romanza’ is really a cello concerto written for no less than Jacqueline du Pré (I wonder if a recording of her performance of the work at the Brighton Festival in 1968 still exists?). It is good that the work, although played as one breath, as it were, is given five tracks to cover the seven contrasting tempo markings and that the theme and each of the variations in Metamorphosis/Dance is separately tracked.

Goehr has never had to cheapen or distort the substance of his music to communicate. A good example of his style can be found, moving to disc 2, in the ‘Lyric Pieces’. The new Viennese antecedents are readily apparent, but not the sweaty effortful manner developed by some composers who have assimilated Schoenberg. This is very much the music of gesture and action with each phrase thrown into a clear, unambivalent relation to the next. You always know what’s going on without feeling you have read the unintelligible manual on the origins of every note.

His homage to Bach,….. ‘a musical offering’ offers a chance for us to grasp Goehr’s interest in counterpoint and early music, an interest culminating in his opera mentioned above. This complex piece has three movements entitled ‘Prelude’, ‘Ancient Dance steps’ and ‘Ricercar’. This is definitely no pastiche but pure Goehr.

Goehr’s sense of colour and his eloquent lyricism are clearly appreciated by David Atherton on the first disc and the London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen on the second disc. These performances were obviously well prepared and rehearsed - a pleasure to report. Add to that Jeannie Thomas’s lovely coloratura soprano in the ravishing concert aria {who writes these nowadays) ‘Behold the Sun’. Two years later this developed into an opera of the same name. In the opera the soprano is dressed as a little boy who sings alone on stage to the moon.

As I have had the original CD since 1991 I have got to know the ‘Sinfonia’ quite well and can recommend it. The striving first movement which is longer than the following five combined is as fine an utterance as anything I know in British music of the twentieth century.

Happily everything is captured in clear, immediate sound as was typical of Unicorn-Kanchana.

The other Goehr recordings made in the early 1990s by Unicorn will be out on NMC next year. Look out for them. For now these recordings mark significant milestones in contemporary British music. If you have an inquiring mind and a willingness to open it out to an underrated composer of our times then you should look out for this set.

Gary Higginson


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