Tuesday 5 February 2013

Oliver Knussen conducts works by Alexander Goehr on a terrific new release from Naxos

In the 1950s five remarkable musicians came together as students at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music).

These were the composer Harrison Birtwistle, the conductor and composer, Elgar Howarth, the great pianist and composer, John Ogdon, the composer, Peter Maxwell Davies and the composer, Alexander Goehr. They came to be known as New Music Manchester group.

Alexander Goehr was born in Berlin in 1932, the son of the conductor Walter Goehr, himself a pupil of Schoenberg.
Goehr came to England in 1933 and studied with Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He later studied with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod in Paris. In the early 1960's he worked for the BBC and formed the Music Theatre Ensemble. From the late 1960’s onwards he taught at the New England Conservatory Boston, as well as at Yale University and Leeds. In 1975 he was appointed to the chair of the University of Cambridge, where he remains Emeritus Professor. He has also taught in China and has twice been Composer-in-residence at Tanglewood.

Although, in the early sixties, Goehr was considered a leader of the avant-garde, Paul Driver has rightly said that he is ‘…unburdened by ideology and technical schemata, Goehr’s works fly free of their conceptualisation with the energy of pure artistic discovery.’ Goehr has written music in many genres including opera (five to date), vocal works, orchestral works, chamber works and piano works.

Naxos has just issued a new release of recording of Goehr’s orchestral music in fine performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/symphonyorchestra  and London Sinfonietta www.londonsinfonietta.org.uk conducted by Oliver Knussen www.harrisonparrott.com/artist/profile/oliver-knussen with pianist Peter Serkin http://www.ingpen.co.uk/artist/peter-serkin/ 
These are BBC Radio 3 live and studio recordings made in 2003 and 2012.

When Adam Fell Op.89 for orchestra, written in 2011for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Oliver Knussen, takes its title from a Bach chorale Durch Adam's Fall ist alles verderbt. Woodwind and percussion dominate the hesitant opening before the strings enter in a broader melody before alternating with the opening theme. Throughout, there are lovely woodwind and percussion passages and richer string melodies. As the work progresses the two combine. There are still hesitant passages that add a feeling of uncertainty to the music before it ends suddenly. Goehr has Messiaen’s ear for instrumental light and colour and pinpoint instrumental sounds. This is a wonderful work.

Pastorals Op.19 (1965) for orchestra has the unusual orchestration of alto flute, clarinet in C, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani, twenty four violins and twelve celli (though on this recording there are eight celli and four double basses). It was commissioned by South West German Radio, Baden-Baden and was first performed at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in 1965 with the South West German Radio Orchestra conducted by Ernest Bour.

The work opens with a sustained note for the brass before the woodwind enter. The music goes through a series of variations, then the opening theme returns on brass, woodwind, and drums before the material is further developed. The brass begin to dominate with percussion in stabbing phrases then echoed by the orchestra. As the work progresses there are richer sounds on the low brass and a section where quiet timpani rolls herald a wonderfully evocative opening to a brilliant section for brass where the various brass instruments seem to have a conversation with each other, set as they are, antiphonally. The strings and percussion then have their say before a dynamic final section where the brass and timpani sound out before a quiet ending. Whilst this is a less obviously melodic piece than the preceding one, it is full of interest, with some appealing writing, lovely sonorities and exciting brass outbursts.

Marching to Carcassonne - Serenade for piano and 12 instruments Op.74. (2002). This work was apparently inspired by a short story called Carcassonne by the Irish writer Lord Dunsay concerning an ‘invincible army that departs from an ‘infinite castle’, subjugates kingdoms and sees monsters and crosses deserts and mountains, but never reaches Carcassonne’. It was commissioned jointly by the London Sinfonietta and the Koussevitsky Music Foundation and is dedicated to Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky.

Marching to Carcassonne opens with a March written for a string quartet and two horns. This march reappears as the fifth and eighth movements as well as six times in the ninth movement, with each appearance being half as long as the previous appearance; presumably representing the difficulty of moving forward from the infinite. After the March, there follows a short Introduction that opens with piano and woodwind leading to Invention where the piano is joined by the instrumental ensemble in a lively, exuberant section.  Chaconne is a more extended movement with lovely textures from harp, strings, woodwind and brass with a central short section for solo piano. The March returns in its shortened length, on string quartet and horns, before the sixth movement, Night; a haunting nocturnal movement, in the form of a passacaglia, inspired by Schoenberg.

Burlesque is a short lively section full of movement and rhythm that is followed by a return of the March as it reappears in an even more curtailed form. Labyrinth, at over eleven minutes, is a large movement that opens with an extended passage for piano and harp. Soon the strings enter in a beautifully impassioned theme, followed by woodwind then strings and piano in a more animated section. There are lovely passages for flute and harp, rapid passages for strings and brass, exciting passages for piano and woodwind and, towards the end, a passage for piano, delicate strings and percussion. The piano and instrumental ensemble leads to a sudden and brilliant coda. Peter Serkin is excellent in this piece, drawing all the magic and elusive beauty from this music.

This terrific new release is an excellent way to get to know the music of Alexander Goehr but if you already know and enjoy his music then you will not wish to miss this new disc  The recordings are excellent and the booklet notes by Alexander Goehr are authoritative. There are also excellent biographical notes by Ivan Hewett.

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