Variations on a Chinese Theme, Op.1
The Eternal Rhythm, Op.5
Tam OShanter, Op.17a
Oboe Concerto, Op.45
Symphony No.1, Op.58
Symphony No.2, Op.62
Concert Piece, Op.65
Joel Merangella (oboe)
Joel Merangella (oboe & cor anglais), Jane Geeson & Sebastien Lipman (harps) [Concert Piece]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
West Australian Symphony Orchestra
CD 1 [Symphony No.1, Oboe Concerto, Tam OShanter, Concert Piece] West Australian SO recorded in March & November 1996 at the Perth Concert Hall
CD 2 Symphony No.2 & Concertino recorded live in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House in November 1993; Fantasy recorded in November 1993 at the Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney
CD 3 [Divertissement, Variations on a Chinese Theme, The Eternal Rhythm, Kaleidoscope] Melbourne SO recorded in October 1995 in the Melbourne Concert Hall
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2005
CD No: ABC CLASSICS
476 7632 [3 CDs]
Duration: 3 hours 38 minutes
The opening work of the third CD, Divertissement, should be all the encouragement you need to pursue the orchestral music of Sir Eugene Goossens. London-born Goossens (1893-1962) is principally remembered as a conductor, one whose musicianship lives on through recordings. Beginning his career as a violinist in Sir Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Goossens gravitated to the conductor’s podium and developed a reputation for championing new and neglected music: in 1921, for example, he conducted the British concert premiere of The Rite of Spring. Thereafter he was largely based in the United States, holding appointments in Rochester, then Cincinnati. Following this he undertook work in Australia.
He was also a prolific composer and, as this 3-CD set demonstrates, a very fine one. The Divertissement, completed in 1960, is a riot of orchestral colour and ingenious dance rhythms, full of energy and lushness. The music suggests itself as being from the 1920s and ‘30s – elements of Holst’s ‘oriental’ music and the early compositions of Arthur Bliss are recalled; indeed the pivotal ‘Scherzo and Folk Tune’ is an orchestration of piano music written in 1926. The ‘Folk Tune’ episode reminds, in terms of orchestration, of Arnold Bax who is, of course, one of Vernon Handley’s great heroes.
The Divertissement is followed, on the third CD, by Variations on a Chinese Theme, the tune being a familiar melody from Weber, one also used by Hindemith in his Symphonic Metamorphosis. As an Opus 1, this is an impressive debut, music composed by Goossens after first hearing, in close succession, Debussy’s Faune and La mer, Tristan, Elektra, and Firebird. Not that any of these works feature, certainly not obviously, in the Variations – but what a baptism to hear music such as this as a teenager, and then to compose such a fine piece as the Variations. Lasting 27 minutes in this performance, the work proves not too long, for Goossens conjures a variety of invention. The 19-year-old composer conducted the first performance, and was encouraged to do so by Stanford (who may have been impressed by Goossens’s use of Brahmsian procedures in this work).
There’s little Brahmsian though about The Eternal Rhythm, written by Goossens as a 20-year-old, and which took longer to introduce to the public; the composer conducted it in London in 1920 and 1921, and then in Berlin, with the Philharmonic, the following year. Interesting to read that Goossens, as late as 1951, believed he had destroyed the work – save that a set of parts and the full score “turned up unexpectedly”. It’s a remarkable piece, opening with nervous shadows contrasting with primeval light. Then the music becomes glowing and Impressionistic and leads, by way of an extravagant huge-orchestra climax, to a radiant conclusion. Sometimes the parallel is with Scriabin at his most mystical. The only comparison in terms of English music is to recall the experiments that John Foulds was undertaking about this time.
By contrast, Kaleidoscope is a series of witty vignettes, eight orchestrated piano pieces (1917/1933) playing for 10 minutes, and recalling childhood memories such as ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, ‘The March of the Wooden Soldier’ and ‘The Punch and Judy Show’; all are delightfully inventive, the final movement, ‘Good Night’, reminding of Gershwin.
The suggestion of Brahms in the Opus 1 Variations also follows through to Goossens’s similar delay in writing a First Symphony (and then almost-immediately writing a second). No.1 was first heard in 1940, in Cincinnati, and No.2 was completed in 1945. Both last for around 40 minutes and are in four movements; all four outer movements have slow introductions; both second movements are marked Andante; and the third ones are, respectively, described as Divertimento and Giocoso. Goossens’s own comments regarding his procrastination were twofold. “I felt little urge to project my sparse ideas through the medium of a form which … calls for a cunning hand and real artistic maturity”. Also, as a conductor, he “had encountered a surfeit of immature pomposities (sic) labelled symphonies from the pens of youthful composers with a message.”
Goossens was at pains to state that Symphony No.1 has no message and is also without illustration of anything specific. Truth to tell, and despite numerous passages of interest, and an orchestration of luminous clarity, the work as a whole doesn’t quite add up. The second movement is rather lovely, though, although Handley is maybe too slow for the tempo marking of Andante espressivo ma con moto; the pace seems to drag. The third movement ‘Divertimento’ has foot-tapping swagger and a melodic richness that would make it an enjoyable ‘concert overture’ if extracted (it is as dextrous and brilliant as anything from Goossens’s younger years), but the substantial finale is rather too deliberately epic, and meanders to a too-easy conclusion.
The Second Symphony, however, is an altogether more compelling work in terms of invention and in symphonic confidence. The first movement impresses in its incident and direction; while the Andante (again, a slow tempo, but one that convinces) both touches and sears (reference points might include Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson). The ‘joking’ third movement scampers along with something of an edge (somewhat anticipating Malcolm Arnold’s ‘haunted’ fast music) – a black comedy – and the finale is the most adventurous in both ideas and scoring. The jubilant coda is hammered-out, and with a suggestion of a quotation underneath. A fascinating (Elgarian) enigma!
Of the remaining works, the Concertino for double string orchestra is vital, rigorous and expansively lyrical, and reminds of Vaughan Williams’s Concerto Grosso, which followed Goossens’s (wonderful) work by 20 or so years; although, intriguingly, the beautiful, moonlit middle section seems to refer deliberately to VW’s own Tallis Fantasia. After this, the Fantasy for nine wind instruments makes a tart contrast; folksy, pastoral, with a dash of Stravinsky as ‘heard’ by Poulenc.
Not surprisingly, the Oboe Concerto was written for Eugene’s brother, Leon, and is a very expressive affair: linear, initially light and floating, and then entering darker recesses. The scoring includes some imaginative use of percussion, not least repeated gong strokes ‘accompanying’ the cadenza, which heralds an upbeat, march-like conclusion. The late, 1958, Concert Piece was written for the Goossens clan; Leon, who doubled on cor anglais, and harpist-sisters Marie and Sidonie. Sir Eugene conducted the premiere, and in the audience was their 91-year-old father. Lasting here 22 minutes, there are now signs of ‘modernism’ in Goossens’s composing, the music being quite angular at times, but it is also not short on repartee, poetic turns, and sheer beauty; it is also lucid and beautifully balanced between the soloists and a variegated orchestra. There’s a sense of humour, too, not least when the Waltz from Act One of Swan Lake makes a brief appearance in the finale; there are other allusions too (the overture to Figaro), and we seem to be in Gerard Hoffnung territory, courtesy of Malcolm Arnold, and one wonders if Goossens wasn’t also ‘having a laugh’ with his earlier up-to-date gestures. How different is Tam O’Shanter, from 1917, a 3-minute scherzo that introduces the Scottish folk-tune amidst a virtuoso display of orchestration. Echoes of Frank Bridge (or is there some Goossens in Bridge’s music?).
For all that these recordings were made in four different locations, and involve three producers and four engineers, the results are amazingly consistent in the excellence of the sound (and Handley’s typical use of antiphonal violins is unerringly caught). A 14-page booklet note acts as both a biography of Goossens and a detailed introduction to his music, the work of a cosmopolitan figure who was very much his own man – and, unlike some other conductor-composers, Goossens was not one to ‘cut and paste’ and create an aural memoir of his concert repertoire.
As for Vernon Handley’s conducting, it is beyond criticism (save, maybe, for parts of Symphony No.1). Handley’s total belief in and dedication to everything played here is palpable – consistently brought to life with conviction by three different orchestras – and one knows that Handley is delivering not only what the composer intended in terms of ‘proper’ score-reading, but is doing so with insight, respect, and genuine enthusiasm. In a contribution to the booklet, Handley writes a touching note about repaying a debt; simply that Handley found Goossens’s conducting to be “exciting and truthful”, and he was especially appreciative of his integrity – a quality that Handley himself has in abundance. This collection of Eugene Goossens’s orchestral music stands high among the many great things that Vernon Handley has given us.