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Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962)
Phantasy Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 60 (1942) [25:24]
Symphony No. 1 Op.58 (1938-1940) [39:05]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. 21-24 April 2008. DDD
Orchestral Works Vol. 1
CHANDOS CHSA 5068 [64:40]
Experience Classicsonline


 

I must put my cards on the table. I believe that Eugene Goossens is one of the best of the large group of largely ignored British composers: there is virtually nothing in his catalogue that I have heard and not liked. Recordings and performances of his works are relatively few and far between. However, there have been sufficient releases on vinyl, cassette and CD over the years to be able to form an appreciation of his exciting corpus of music.

I first came to Goossens by way of the delightful collection of piano pieces called Kaleidoscope. It was played to me ‘live’ by a friend who had counted the composer as a friend. It was a number of years before I discovered the First Symphony recorded by Vernon Handley and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately, ABC Classics issued a three-CD retrospective of Goossens’ orchestral music in 2005 with Handley conducting. It is this release that allowed me, and I guess a huge number of other listeners to get to know this fine music. Two major works were missing – the Phantasy Concertos: one each for violin and for piano. Fortunately Chandos have here remedied the deficiency in the case of the 1942 Phantasy Piano Concerto.

The Phantasy Concerto for piano was written for the Spanish pianist José Iturbi. It was given its first performance in Cincinnati on 25 February 1944 and was later broadcast by the BBC in November of the same year. It received its first London public performance at the 1949 Promenade Concerts. I guess that it has remained unheard since that time.

It is not necessary to give an analysis of this work here as the sleeve-notes provide virtually all the information it is possible to write. However two things are worth quoting – firstly the composer’s own description of the concerto: “The work, particularly the slow movement was influenced by my re-reading at that time Edgar Allan Poe’s The Devil in the Belfry, and might be said to reflect something of the fantastic and sinister character of that story, though in no way being a literal description of it.” It is, perhaps, pertinent to this description that the Second World War was in its final year when this work was first heard. Although this Phantasy is in no way a ‘war concerto’, the ‘sinister’ mood certainly pervades much, but certainly not all, of this Concerto. There are a number of positive passages that maybe look beyond VJ day to a time when hope is the prevailing emotion.

Secondly I want to quote The Times review of the first London performance. After noting that it could only be at a Proms Concert that it is possible to hear a full concert of Sibelius’s music followed by two sizeable modern works: in this case Goossens’s Phantasy and his Sinfonietta, the reviewer writes that this music “may be seen as a child of his time, of yesterday perhaps rather than today, but still in touch with contemporary idiom and contemporary taste.” He continues, by suggesting that the concerto is “like Sunday’s child, blithe and bonny and gay even if [it is] not good all the time”. But perhaps his final comment is the most pertinent and saves today’s reviewer from searching for a succinct description of this work. He suggests that this work may be “classed as a volume of musical autobiography: there is a lustrous veneer of nineteen-twentyish gallicism that masks, but not for long, the essential anglicism of, say, Delius and Bax, a light coating of fun à la Gershwin and even a good soupçon of good honest Australian frankness.”

Goossens’ archetypes are usually stated to be Gustav Holst and Arthur Bliss, however I sometimes think that this is disingenuous. The reality is that his Phantasy ‘ain’t like no-one.’ However, it would be fair to say that there are contemporary American influences as well as a lush ‘film-like’ romanticism that is never allowed to overwhelm the music. If I was to suggest an influence it would be actually be Cyril Scott.

Interestingly, Goossens was in his mid-forties before he deigned to compose a Symphony. He wrote that “Perhaps it was that in my 25-year career as a conductor I had encountered a surfeit of immature pomposities labelled symphonies from the pens of youthful composers with a message.” Furthermore he felt little urge to “project my sparse ideas through the medium of a form which for successful manipulation calls for a cunning hand and artistic maturity.” Even a superficial hearing of this work must surely impress the listener. It is clear that the composer has not fallen into the trap he had feared. He has created a canvas that is both well-written and fundamentally moving. It is a great work.

However contemporary reviewers, although impressed, were a little disappointed that Goossens had not pushed at the boundaries of modernism. It was perceived as lacking a sense of adventure and an individual voice. Goossens wrote to his parents that “They [reviewers] would have liked me to have written something ultra-modern and full of modern clichés which would have enabled them to write that I was writing music which didn’t come naturally to me.”

The most damning criticism was from The Times reviewer. He suggested that “the Symphony, like his previous music, is a matter of skill rather than imagination.”

As a listener approaching this great work after a period of some 65 years it is relatively easy to put aside stylistic prejudice. We now no longer feel it necessary to condemn a work because it is not deemed to belong to a particular school or to follow an expected compositional process or stylistic milieu.

This Symphony is a stunning work. I have always - since I first heard it - regarded it as one of the great essays of twentieth century symphonic literature. It is debatable as to whether it is to be regarded as a ‘war’ symphony as the composer seemingly eschewed any particular programme. However the variety in this work suggests the whole range of emotions – from hope to despair – which would have been the prevailing moods at the time of composition.

It is easy to suggest influences and allusions in this work – perhaps Bax can be invoked as lying behind some of the more moody passages. Rob Barnett has suggested that the “dank and willowy world” of Frank Bridge can be heard. And echoes of Vaughan Williams can be noted at various points in the score’s development. Yet the dynamics of this work, the outworking of the formal design and the colourful orchestration are all Goossens’ own endeavour. It is unfair to suggest that his Symphony is in any way a parody or a pastiche of any other work.

At times it is beautiful, occasionally humorous, often disturbing. But at all times this First Symphony holds our interest and impresses our musical understanding.

The programme notes are amongst the best I have ever seen for a CD. This is to be expected from Lewis Foreman. However, we are fortunate in having a great deal of commentary and analysis from Eugene Goossens himself. Foreman has given generous quotations from these sources and has provided what is effectively a model sleeve-note for this release.

This is the last major recording to come from the baton of Richard Hickox – and is typically superb. Also, hats off to Howard Shelley for mastering the intricacies of the Phantasy Concerto: it certainly sounds a considerable challenge.

One is left wondering if this recording was part of a planned Chandos cycle of Goossens’ music. It is a project that may now no longer come to fruition. However we must be thankful for the Vernon Handley recordings although I am not convinced that these are readily available.

John France

And another perspective by Rob Barnett:-

This wonderful disc would, but for Hickox’s death last year, have been the first of an intended Chandos-Goossens-Hickox series. It delivers the first commercial recording of the Phantasy Piano Concerto and the fourth of the Symphony.

The First Symphony’s earlier commercial recordings are as follows:-

1. Sir Eugene Goossens/Sydney Symphony Orchestra (rec. 1947). ABC Festival FC-30866 (LP) (1962)

2. David Measham/Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Unicorn KP8000 (LP) (1980)

3. Vernon Handley/West Australian Symphony Orchestra. ABC Classics 462–14-2 (1998)

Neither of the LP issues have reappeared on CD and the ABC LP is a very great rarity. This is a  pity as the historical value of the distressed 1947 recording is high. The Measham is in good sound and would be well worth rescuing from obscurity perhaps as part of a multi-CD reissue of Myer Fredman’s LP recording of Goossens’ epic cantata The Apocalypse which appeared from ABC Classics (L70225/6) in the twilight of the analogue era – circa 1980.

Goossens’ First Symphony is to his Second Symphony what Bax’s Northern Ballad No. 1 is to the Second Northern Ballad. The First is dramatic-romantic. The Second is pungently atmospheric-tragic.

I like Handley’s version of the Symphony very much but Hickox finds a quicker pulse overall and I found myself warming to it the more I heard it. His recording is also superior being in the best luxurious Chandos house style. Hickox still finds time to make the sultry melody in the first movement sing out – even if it sounds suspiciously like a fragment of that Tony Bennett ballad, I left my heart in San Francisco. The Goossens came first. The second movement is grand and swoony: a slow boiling miasma complete with Goossens’ accustomed harmonic ambivalence. When it comes to the boil another of the composer-conductor’s podium enthusiasms came to mind: Scriabin. The capering malign spirits of the finale have their counterparts in Suk’s Asrael and Vaughan Williams’ Fourth. The grand Baxian peroration is very effective. The last time I heard it other than on disc was in a spirited studio broadcast on 15 December 1990 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk. Well worth your listening effort.

The Goossens’ Phantasy Concerto for piano and orchestra is a rara avis indeed. There have been no previous recordings. There was a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 10 June 1988 when Eric Parkin was the pioneering revivalist with Bryden Thomson conducting the then BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. Howard Shelley gave the Australian premiere with Hickox and the Melbourne orchestra on 19 April 2008.

The Phantasy Concerto has the wayward fantastic-picaresque character of the Cyril Scott First Piano Concerto. It also radiates the flamboyance and subtlety of the John Ireland Piano Concerto and Legend. Edgar Allan Poe was the inspiration – a man whose tales and poems proved a luxurious source for a contemporary of Goossens, Joseph Holbrooke (1872-1958). The Goossens work is a rich confection though the ideas do not have a strong melodic profile. Even so a number of episodes stand out: heroic flourishes, a dripping lapidary and crystalline imagery, a broad Hollywood-style melody but refracted in the manner of Bridge’s Phantasm, a glistening tapestry of sound in the manner of Klimt and Iberian coruscation complete with castanets.

As ever the disc is resplendently documented by Lewis Foreman.

Now let’s hope that Chandos will find a new champion for Goossens who will be commissioned to tackle the 1948 Phantasy Violin Concerto. This was premiered by Tessa Robbins in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 7 September 1960 and then sank from sight. There are also two operas: a biblical story Judith against recorded on LP by ABC and a grand opera Don Juan de Mañara. Now they would need some serious sponsorship.


  Rob Barnett
 

 


 


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