Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) Complete Music for Violin and Piano
Violin Sonata in E minor Op.21 (1918) [22:20]
Lyric Poem Op.35 (1919-20) [9:17]
Old Chinese Folk-Song (from the Yang-tse-Kiang) (1912) [1:47]
Romance (from Act III Don Juan de Mañara) (1937) [5:51]
Violin Sonata No.2 Op.50 (1930) [32:20]
Robert Gibbs (violin); Gustáv Fenyö (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England, 16-17 April 2011
NAXOS 8.572860 [71:34]
A warm welcome for this disc of the complete works for violin and piano by Eugene Goossens. That it’s taken exactly fifty years since his death for such a compilation to appear on a single disc is more an indictment of the tastes and buying preferences of the music-buying public than any inherent ‘problem’ with the music itself. In fact far from it; on first listen this proves to be elegant appealing and thoroughly engaging. The problem, if problem it is, is that this music does not sit comfortably into any obviously marketable niche. Of the British composers/conductors Goossens is the one who wrote most consistently interesting and challenging music that continued on into his conducting career. If one compares his oeuvre with say Hamilton Harty, Harty’s body of work diminished in pretty directly inverse proportion to his success as a conductor. Constant Lambert produced works of greater significance than Harty but more sporadically. Goossens continued to pursue both careers in parallel and managed to create a body of work of greater quantity and even quality than either. Although his music has not been neglected on disc there has been no company which has had a coherent or concerted policy of recording his music; ABC have come close with its three disc set. My feeling is that he deserves considerably more serious consideration than any number of minor British composers whose music is currently being revived. Certainly Goossens does not subscribe to the English Pastoral School, nor the Eastern Exotica or Celtic Twilight pursued by others. Instead this is very individual music with more than a hint of continental sophistication.
The Adagio of the 1918 Sonata No.1 is a case in point – there’s something rather sensuously and sinuously sultry about it that hints more towards Paris than London. At the same time it wears its heart more prominently on its sleeve than one often expects of that style of music. This then juxtaposes against a jigging Finale marked ‘con brio’ that creates a wholly contrasting mood which in turn subsides into a piano-only interlude which does hint at a Baxian moorland storm. What is clear throughout is the demanding nature of the writing for both piano and violin – who are cast as equal partners. Fortunately both pianist Gustáv Fenyö and violinist Robert Gibbs are well up to the task. Gibbs has recorded the complete Bax Sonatas on ASV and fine though they were I think his rather fast vibrato and slightly febrile tone is better suited to this Goossens. All of the works here are in effect inter-War works from the 1918 1st Sonata to the 1937 Romance adapted from a passage in his opera Don Juan de Mañara.
The disc is well-planned with the two substantial Sonatas framing the three briefer but by no means inconsiderable occasional works. Any of these three would make a valuable filler in a recital programme as they balance concision with appeal. Of them the Lyric Poem is particularly impressive. However, it is the two sonatas, and the second especially, that demand to be far better known. There is some confusion between the writer of the liner - Fenyö - and the person who wrote the brief CD cover note. The latter names Heifetz as the dedicatee of the 2nd Sonata. Fenyö is correct to give that accolade to Paul Kochanski although Heifetz did become an enthusiastic player of the work and pushed Goossens for other works including a concerto. As a result the Romance included here is dedicated to him. Whoever inspired the work they clearly encouraged the composer - especially in the surgingly dramatic first movement - to writing of concerto-like power. Kochanski was also the dedicatee of Bax's - almost contemporaneous (1927) - 3rd Sonata. Certainly, if you respond to the muscular conviction of that work you will find much to enjoy here although on a more epic scale. Again all credit to Gibbs and Fenyö for the total conviction of their performance. Apart from the sheer excitement of much of the writing Goossens achieves a very impressive dramatic/emotional arc to his writing. The tollingly sombre ending to the first movement is a case in point which then leads into a strangely lithe but elusive 2nd movement marked Intermezzo - a la Sicilienne. This has some of same element of regretful languor as Walton in pensive mood. I have nothing but praise for the performers who understand the style to perfection and therefore project this shifting landscape with great skill and subtlety. The finale opens in more rhetorical mood with orchestral textures being demanded of the piano over which the violin plays a very wide-ranging sustained melody. Well played though it is here it struck me as the one passage of the work where the writing sounds more effortful than thoroughly convincing. However, a driving Allegro soon intervenes and any more doubts diminish before the piece sweeps to an exciting and purposeful close. In his autobiography Overture and Beginners Goossens refers to this Sonata by saying "... only Heifetz now seems able to infuse [the work with] the lyrical intensity realised by [Albert] Sammons and Murdoch [at its first performance]". Lyrical intensity is certainly a quality that Gibbs and Fenyö possess in abundance. Running to over half an hour this is a major work but one that wears its scale with ease. It strikes me as one of the more impressive British violin sonatas of the inter-war years and its neglect is saddening. It is to be hoped that this very fine performance will help to rectify the oversight.
Credit too to producer/engineer Michael Ponder for keeping the piano well forward in the overall aural picture. Yes that does mean at moments the violin is nearly overwhelmed with the sheer power of the piano writing but I see that as being an integral part of the drama of the composition. The recording as a whole is understatedly excellent with the tone of the instruments truthfully caught in the reliably pleasing acoustic of Potton Hall.
One could argue that the emotional landscape of the work is at odds with the 'modern' music of its age. It is possible to characterise that modern music as being emotionally cool, indeed cynical, with a fascination more for advanced compositional techniques and neo-classical formal clarity than overt romanticism. However, Goossens' brand of Romanticism has a distinctly modern slant; one feels that his heart is that of a Romantic but the tools he uses to express that are modern albeit with a clearly tonal focus. None of the music recorded here is in fact new to disc - Oliver Lewis and Jeremy Filsell split the same programme over two discs for Guild (GMCD7120 and GMCD7124) some fifteen years ago and Madeleine Mitchell included the 1st Sonata in a recital disc of English Sonatas on Somm. I have not heard any of these other discs but as ever this new disc appeals on the grounds of musical excellence allied to Naxos value and sensible programming. Quite why Goossens' music resolutely fails to break through into the consciousness of even well-informed music-lovers remains a mystery to me. I wonder when a British orchestra played one of his major scores in concert? As I write this the 2012 Proms prospectus has been released - a measure of Goossens' obscurity is that you do not even look to see that his music is not included.
An excellent collection; passionate interpretations of major works played with great skill presented in fine sound - a winner.
Nick Barnard
An excellent collection - passionate interpretations - a winner.