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Goossens v1 PASC654

Sir Eugene Goossens (conductor)
Cincinnati Symphony Volume 1
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
The Walk to the Paradise Garden (arr. Sir Thomas Beecham)
Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
Violin Concerto (original version)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A London Symphony (1920 version)
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
rec. February 1941 (Walton, Vaughan Williams), February 1946 (Delius) Cincinnati Music Hall, Cincinnati, USA. Mono

Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) was one of England’s finest conductors in the 20th century, yet he fell under the shadow of a quartet of outstanding English conductors who dominated British music in the first half of the twentieth century. However, he cut an original path, exploring the less well-known areas of modern music and left a heritage of outstanding recordings in the United States, Europe and in Australia. Regrettably, for reasons quite distant from music, his career was cut short just a few years before his death in 1962.

He was born into a musical family in 1893: his Belgian grandfather was a conductor, his father was a violinist and his mother was an opera singer. Of his siblings, Léon was an oboist, Sidonie and Marie were harpists and Adolphe was a horn player. Aged ten, Eugene studied violin at the Bruges Conservatoire and in 1906 he enlisted in the Liverpool College of Music, furthering his studies at the Royal College of Music in 1907 where he conducted the student orchestra in his first major composition, Chinese Variations. He worked as a violinist in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and in the Philharmonic String Quartet. Wood invited Goossens to conduct his Chinese Variations at a Proms concert in 1913 and he conducted several London orchestras, but his big break was becoming assistant to Beecham in 1916 and the same season he gave the premiere of Stanford’s The Critic. He became a full-time conductor five years later when he set up his own orchestra specialising in modern music.

In 1921, Goossens gave the UK concert premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in London which led to his being appointed as a conductor with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and working with all the main London orchestras and several European orchestras. Two years later, George Eastman offered him a teaching appointment at the Eastman School of Music, jointly with the music directorship of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, positions he held until 1931, while sharing his activities with conducting at Covent Garden. During his American career, Goossens conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, making recordings there¸ and, between 1931 and 1946 he was Music Director in Cincinnati, building on the heritage of the orchestra’s previous music directors, Stokowski, Kunwald, Ysaÿe and Reiner.

Goossens’ recordings in Cincinnati in 1941 were the first to be made by the ensemble since the acoustic recordings by Ysaÿe and Kunwald in 1917-19. His work with his musicians and the American music world together with the outbreak of World War II led him to become an American citizen in 1943. He was a highly regarded composer and his opera Judith was premiered by him at Covent Garden in 1929, as was his second opera Don Juan de Mañara in 1937, both using libretti by Arnold Bennett which led to Harold Rosenthal writing, ‘his own highly chromatic yet chaste style is itself not essentially operatic.’ The First Symphony dates from 1939 and was succeeded by his Second in 1944, and he conducted his large-scale oratorio The Apocalypse in 1954 in Sydney. His chamber pieces are more characterful; he wrote an Oboe Concerto in 1927 for his brother Léon who later recorded it. Goossens made arrangements of Bach’s French Suites, Brahms Sextet in G major and reorchestrated Handel’s Messiah which was recorded by Beecham.

Following his spell in Cincinnati, Goossens moved to Australia where he became conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1947-1956) and headed the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music - among the students there were Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. After being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955, his career took a nose dive when he was involved in a scandal in 1956. He died in 1962.

As a conductor, Goossens was more at home with the late Romantics, whereas his handling of the classical composers was less authoritative; nevertheless, his programmes embraced the baroque composers through to the modernists. He could produce clear, impassioned and powerful performances of the composers with whose music he felt the most affinity, yet in his personality it was argued that he concealed his reticence beneath a veil of egotism. Among his greatest gifts was an ability to master large scores at short notice, needing only a piano rehearsal for an opera previously unknown to him before going on to deliver an outstanding performance.

His first recording was for HMV of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra in 1923, and it was with this ensemble that he recorded pieces by Smetana, Stravinsky, Lyadov, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Puccini, Delius, Elgar and his own Tam o’Shanter. His Second Symphony was recorded by the Sydney Symphony for EMI after the war and other recordings made in Australia of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Turina reveal how fine that orchestra was under this Englishman. He made the bulk of his recordings with EMI, but a fine series was also made with Everest and the London Symphony Orchestra of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Respighi, Villa Lobos, Antheil, Hindemith, Schumann and Franck. In his later period in the 1950s, Goossens made other recordings with Decca, Saga, Electrecord and DGG.

In this excellent release from Pristine Audio, we hear Goossens conducting three major English composers in works notable for the quality of their performances and adherence to the composers’ intentions. His tempos throughout are somewhat brisk in comparison with other contemporary recordings, especially those by Barbirolli, Woods and Boult.

In a nod to his mentor Beecham, Goossens uses Beecham’s arrangement of The Walk to a Paradise Garden (Intermezzo from A Village Romeo and Juliet) and from the first notes it is clear that the standard of performance is on a very high level, with the Cincinatti woodwind on particularly good form. Goossens finds completely the luxuriant and colourful fantasy of Delius’ idiom. This a very fine reading, excellently recorded and restored.

The Walton Violin Concerto is blessed with having one of 20th century’s greatest virtuosos in Jascha Heifetz as the soloist. It is difficult to comment on the Russian maestro’s performance beyond saying that Heifetz’ style of playing ideally suits Walton’s writing. Arguably, he plays this concerto here better than anyone else with the possible exception of Menuhin. Goossens gives him a very fine collaboration, bringing out the best from his orchestra and thereby verifying that it was among the best American professional orchestras of the period. The strings, brass and woodwind are all on top form throughout. Heifetz made another recording in 1950 in which the composer had made some very small revisions mostly in relation to the percussion; that performance is much in line with this earlier recording.

The highlight of the disc is the 1920 version of Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony, ‘The London Symphony’. Goossens, as he does in many works, assumes a brisk tempo and brings out all of the finest moments in the score. I have not heard Sir Dan Godfrey’s recording on the Symposium label, and there is another contemporary recording of the fully revised symphony conducted by Sir Henry Woods on Decca in 1936; however, I doubt if it could approach this masterly interpretation by Goossens. Of course, the cuts from the original score amount to a considerable 40 measures in the slow movement and as much as 78 measures in the finale. However, the speeds of this reading are quite close to the timings of Woods’ complete version - an indication of the pace of Goossens’ interpretation. Nevertheless, this is an outstanding historical recording admirably restored by Obert-Thorn with Goossens producing a very sympathetic account bringing all its Romanticism to the fore. It is difficult not to admire his obvious affection for the music; the playing displays a nostalgia for the London of a period familiar to Goossens himself. This is recommended to all who appreciate Vaughan Williams’ symphonic legacy and is a welcome introduction to this neglected English conductor and composer. I look forward keenly to future releases in this series.

Gregor Tassie

Previous review: Mark Sebastian Jordan

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